Thanks to the plucky success of the 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' soundtrack, the pickins aren't so slim for new fans of old country
To gauge the unexpected side effects of the quintuple-platinum O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, consider the high profile of bluegrass king Ralph Stanley, last seen warbling about mortality’s terrors at the Grammys, where the album spawned five trophies. Stanley is about to capitalize on his sudden mainstream visibility with the first release on DMZ, a new label founded by O Brother soundtrack producer T Bone Burnett and the movie’s creators, the Coen brothers. ”You know, we’re gonna have a 75-year-old rock star this year,” Burnett says he told the president of Columbia Records, which will distribute Stanley’s self-titled album in June. ”I’ve taken great pleasure in Ralph beginning to see some justice. I know he’s enjoying it like crazy. He’s driving around in his shades and black leather jacket in a new black Jaguar.”
Stanley’s new Bono gear aside, the O Brother breakthrough hasn’t led to all the hallmarks of stardom for acoustic country traditionalists: Young women still aren’t throwing their panties at Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss hasn’t had any Mariah-style meltdowns on TRL, and Gillian Welch isn’t dating her choreographer. But as Peter Blackstock, coeditor of alternative country magazine No Depression, likes to say, ”This is the next medium-sized thing.” For bluegrass, even moderation is mammoth. O Brother would’ve been considered a genre smash if it had sold 129,000 copies total; it managed to hit that mark in its latest — 66th — week alone. Suddenly the roots community is reeling from the fact that millions of people have a clue who Norman Blake is.
Or at least what he does. ”It’s amazing when you go see the Down From the Mountain tour, and a lot of people don’t even know who’s on the bill,” says Rounder Records general manager Paul Foley, referring to the highly successful O Brother road-show spin-off that returns to the amphitheater circuit this summer. ”Yet they’re plopping down $80 and $90, because they want to continue to experience the album.” Non-Brother acts benefit from the trickle down too, says Foley. ”Big spike. Current music sales have declined, but ours are up dramatically. I was at a IIIrd Tyme Out show last week, and the band asked, ‘[For] how many people is this your first time at a bluegrass show?’ Half raised their hands.”
One thing’s for sure: They didn’t hear about the band on their neighborhood country station. Although the cable network CMT programs the Soggy Bottom Boys, Krauss, and Nickel Creek, radio is allergic. ”Country radio made a decision in the early ’90s to abruptly sever itself from its past,” says No Depression coeditor Grant Alden, who’s helping spearhead a syndicated show that starts later this month under the magazine’s moniker, pushing airwave exiles from Bill Monroe to Lucinda Williams. ”We are absolutely using O Brother as a whipping boy to go to commercial country radio and say, ‘Look, give us two hours on Sunday. Find out if you can play this for your audience.”’