New ‘O Brother’ Set Serves Up More Old-Timey Music

George Clooney isn’t the only one whose singing didn’t make the final cut of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and the film’s best-selling soundtrack, which helped turn old-timey music into hit pop tunes again.

Clooney’s stab at singing the film’s signature song still remains in the vaults, but an expanded version of the soundtrack – in stores Tuesday – packs 14 extra tracks, including 12 previously unreleased cuts from music producer T Bone Burnett’s O Brother sessions.

Photo: John Davisson
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, Calif.

The two-CD set, which also includes the 19 tunes from the original soundtrack, helps celebrate the 10th anniversary of the O Brother triumph at the 2001 Grammys, where it was picked as album of the year.

The film’s $45 million haul at the domestic box-office was at the time the biggest success yet for filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, but it was a pittance compared to Hollywood blockbusters.

The album, though, was a runaway hit, selling 9 million copies, ranking as one of the 10 top-selling soundtracks ever and inspiring renewed interest in long-neglected rootsy music that continues today. As the studio engineer tells Clooney’s gang in the film, “people can’t seem to get enough” of that old-timey stuff.

“That type of music had been around my whole life. There was a period of time in the late 1950s and early ‘60s where it was actually popular music, and I knew there hadn’t been a light shone on it for some number of years,” Burnett said.

“We knew we were getting ready to shine a very bright light on it with a George Clooney movie and a George Clooney video, for that matter. I thought there was a very good chance that it would penetrate the zeitgeist, these singers and musicians; for a lot of people to hear them and think this was good music. The thing I didn’t foresee was all the banjo sales increasing by 7,000 percent.”

The expanded soundtrack features more songs by performers who were on the original album, among them Norman Blake, the Fairfield Four and the Peasall Sisters, and others who didn’t make it on the initial release, including Van Dyke Parks, Colin Linden and Alan O’Bryant.

The double album features two previously unreleased tracks by the late John Hartford, a banjo player and music folklorist who wrote “Gentle on My Mind.” Burnett recalls that Hartford recorded 30 or 40 songs in a single day as they were working on the O Brother soundtrack.

Inspired by Homer’s “The Odyssey,” the film follows three Depression-era escaped convicts (Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) as they encounter seductive sirens, run afoul of a modern Cyclops (John Goodman) and inadvertently record a hit song with the traditional tune “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.” The film makes its debut on Blu-ray disc Sept. 13, with extras that include the “Man of Constant Sorrow” music video.

Clooney, nephew of singer Rosemary Clooney, recorded a version that “sounded great … he does have those genes, and he is Irish,” Burnett said. “If George wanted to, he could be a singer.”

But Clooney only had a brief time to prepare for his studio session. Burnett said that for the film to work, the song had to sound timeless, the sort of tune that could sweep the airwaves and become the salvation for Clooney and his “Soggy Bottom Boys.”

The filmmakers went with a version sung by country and bluegrass guitarist Dan Tyminski, one of the “O Brother” session musicians and a long-time member of Alison Krauss’ band Union Station.

Tyminski’s “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which also won a Grammy, has become a standard at Krauss’ shows, and the song gave him such a career boost that he stepped out from sideman duties to record two solo albums.

The music revival that followed the soundtrack’s release still is going strong, Tyminski said.

“It took years before I really started to understand the impact that soundtrack had on the music. It trickled down outside anything connected to the soundtrack,” Tyminski said. “I remember after that, attendance to a lot of those festivals and events that had anything do with that type of music, their attendance tripled. No extra advertising, no mention of any connection to the movie.”

Burnett said there’s a lot more music that might eventually be released from the O Brother sessions. That might potentially include Clooney’s take on “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which Burnett did not go looking for as he put together the expanded soundtrack.

“I don’t know why we didn’t think of that,” Burnett said. If he can find it – and Clooney agrees – “at some point I’m going to put out the George Clooney version.”