With O Brother, Where Art Thou?, filmmakers the Coen Brothers have turned their warped vision not upon Fargo or New Jersey but the American South during the Depression. Besides bringing us George Clooney's adventures as a prison escapee, the movie delivers a T. Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack offering one of the most intriguing and successful Southern roots music samplers to date.
The album places two tracks from the period (a prison work song and Harry McClintock's hobo classic, "Big Rock Candy Mountain") and a 1950s bluegrass staple (the Stanley Brothers Angel Band) with 16 new recordings of old time, bluegrass, gospel and blues songs from the 1930s through 1950s, recorded by the likes of Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, the Whites, John Hartford, Norman Blake, Gillian Welch and the Fairfield Four.
The arrangements manifest powerful simplicity: The vocal numbers place the focus on the words and voice; the instrumentals clearly articulate the melodies. These stars abandon their egos to go deeply into the words and music. Highlights abound throughout, such as Krauss leading the chorus in a haunting rendition of "Down in the Valley to Pray." The so-called Soggy Mountain Boys offer two different soulful versions of "I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow," with Dan Tyminski of Krauss' band actually singing the lyrics which Clooney mouths on screen. Stanley's solo a cappella performance of "O Death" defines both his chilling skill and absence of artifice. With one outstanding cut after another, only the somewhat cloying voices of the child singers on "In the Highways" fail to work well.
The O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack could prove as important for Southern music as Will the Circle Be Unbroken or the Harry Smith anthologies on Folkways. Not only do the three projects share several songs, but each in their own way presents some of the foremost musicians of their respective generations performing canonical material.