And lo, Gillian Welch was walking along a busy thoroughfare in the city of Nashville when she came upon a teenager in baggy pants. His voice was raised in exultation and he sang a song from long ago — a dungaree-slapping romp from a half-remembered land of flint and bramble and family bibles. The song was ”I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” and Welch gazed upon the boy in wonder. ”I would not have predicted that in the year 2001, I would see a teenager walking down the street singing ‘Man of Constant Sorrow,”’ she said. ”O Brother has wrought that.”
Let us shout hallelujah for the Things That Don’t Make Sense, for without them, what a soul-sucking drag pop culture would be. It was this year, while the cow-eyed drones of megapop frolicked with serpents, that the soundtrack from O Brother, Where Art Thou? gently shattered every law of the show-business temple. In an empire of youth, people began listening to old songs, some very old, some performed by old people! Mournful moans, jug-band jams, chain-gang grunts! Ballads of death and weariness and agony of the spirit! Prayers and hymns delivered by stoic beacons of American integrity — Ralph Stanley and John Hartford; Welch and Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris; relative unknowns like blues troubadour Chris Thomas King and Dan Tyminski, a dude from Krauss’ band, dubbed in as the voice of George Clooney!? All of ’em hitched to a movie that came out last year? Yet it came to pass that O Brother, Where Art Thou? sold 3 million copies, that it won a double shot of CMA awards, that it begat cross-country tours and a spin-off concert album (Down From the Mountain), that it awakened a bruised nation’s Delta-Piedmont-Appalachian soul.
And so it was revealed that the Things That Don’t Make Sense often make the most sense of all — that those who have wandered in the wasteland will, in time, get mighty thirsty. Thus proclaimed O Brother’s producer, T Bone Burnett: ”We have machines that can crank out perfect music all day long, but it still doesn’t have the life or the excitement or the beauty that a human performance does. The more prefabricated and synthesized everything gets, the more people value something of authenticity.”