'O Brother, Where Art Thou' reissue: How a best-selling soundtrack changed a prisoner's life
Sorry, ladies: the recording of George Clooney singing “Man of Constant Sorrow,” the main song from O Brother Where Art Thou, does not appear on the film’s bluegrass-laden soundtrack, which comes out today on its 10th anniversary in a newly expanded, double-disc form.
In the liner notes, music producer T Bone Burnett admits that “Man of Constant Sorrow” was originally intended to be the Dude’s anthem in The Big Lebowski, but ended up being a better fit for O Brother’s hero, Ulysses Everett McGill. It’s just a shame that the actor who played that character couldn’t sing it.
“Just for the record, George Clooney is a very good singer…[but recording that song] is not something one can do overnight, not even George Clooney,” says Burnett in the reissue, which also features 14 previously unreleased tracks from artists such as Norman Blake and the Cox Family.
Luckily, Burnett didn’t need Clooney to make the album a hit: it sold 9 million copies, ranking as one of the 10 top-selling soundtracks ever and reinvigorating interest in old-timey, roots music. Burnett reveals that it grew so popular, it even changed the life of James Carter, who recorded the album’s “Po Lazarus” in 1959 with folk musicologist Alan Lomax while he was in the Parchman Farm penitentiary in Mississippi. When the album reached No. 1, the Lomax Foundation tracked Carter down.
“He was married to a storefront preacher in Chicago, and didn’t even remember recording the song,” says Burnett. “The Lomax lawyers had a check for him—the first of many. So a movie about these prisoners on a prison work farm down South recording a song and having it become a big hit unbeknownst to them started off with a song recorded by a prisoner on a prison work farm which became a big hit unbeknownst to him. I hope James Carter felt some redemption.”
O readers, tell us your Brother tales in the comments below—are you into the expanded version, or faithful to Where Art Thou 1.o?