As told to David Wild.
The O Brother, Where Art Thou? tale began for me with a phone call from Ethan Coen in late 1998 during which he asked me if I wanted to do a movie with Joel and him about the history of American music. That sounded like an irresistible proposition. A couple of years earlier, I had been up in New York working on music for the play Tooth Of Crime with my old friend Sam Shepard, whom I had met a few decades earlier on my first job in show business as part of another musical ensemble, Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue.
Tooth of Crime was being produced downtown in New York, but at the same time the Steppenwolf Theatre was doing Sam's play Buried Child uptown -- Sam's first ever show on Broadway. Standing in line to get into Buried Child on opening night, I ran into Joel Coen and his wife Frances McDormand. Joel said he wanted to give me a call about something. Later, he explained to me, "My brother and I are getting ready to work on our first soundtrack movie, would you be interested in getting into that?" That movie was The Big Lebowski. That was the beginning of what has turned out to be a most rewarding collaboration, and one for which I am deeply grateful.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? became much more than a killer gig. It was a fulfillment of a life of chasing down the old music without ever knowing where it was leading me. We were tapping into a beautiful and powerful musical stream. What is often called Bluegrass may have been in the middle of this stream, but it's all part of a long history that includes everyone from Duke Ellington to Lefty Frizzell, from Billie Holiday to Elvis Presley, and maybe most of all, to Louis Armstrong. This stream we explored is the extraordinary music of the last century -- an incredible treasure that comes to us directly from an age when music was made by everyone. It was analogue. It was made before the rise of the machines.
I've always loved the more rough-hewn stuff like Jimmy Reed and the Stanley Brothers, music that wasn't polished, music that was honest and in which there was a lot of history. Folk music had been around my whole life. I think a better, more accurate and more inclusive name for it is traditional American music. The great Ralph Stanley calls it "old time mountain music." Some people who make this timeless sound call it country music. Call it what you want. As Duke Ellington once said, "If it sounds good, it is good." When the Coen brothers started showing me some of the songs they had already chosen for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it felt like my whole life was coming into play on this particular trip. The Coen brothers have a deep understanding of music, and know there is this river of music that flows through history. Sometimes it is raging and sometimes it slows down, but it's been going on for a long time. The Coens are not just inspired filmmakers, but brilliant archaeologists, as well. They dig their films out of the past. If I had it all to do over again, I think I'd be an archaeologist because they are the ones who figure out what's going on. Maybe they're the only ones. The Coens are the most generous of artists. They are extremely adept at collaboration -- they have a tremendous ease in reaching a consensus. There is no conflict. They had a lot of songs going into it.
I had given them "Man Of Constant Sorrow" for The Dude in The Big Lebowski. The song didn't end up in that movie, but it did become exactly the right song for the epic hero, Ulysses Everett McGill.
We recorded the music before the movie. The first song we had to get was "Man Of Constant Sorrow." The song is, of course, a standard -- there are probably fifty versions of it. The version we used for our template was the version the Stanley Brothers had done with two singers answering the last line of every verse -- which is, of course, comedic and paradoxical as the tune is about a tore-down, blown-out cat with these other voices attesting to the veracity of his tragic state of affairs. Somehow this song captured the tone of the movie--epic and dead serious on the one hand and comic and affable on the other.
Although the song is probably hundreds of years old, in fact it probably goes back to Greece in Plato's time, the version of "Man Of Constant Sorrow" that we used as our source was first documented in the United States by a blind fiddle player from Kentucky named Dick Burnett. I like to imagine that I'm related to Dick Burnett -- and also to Chester Burnett. I like to imagine that.
As many people know, Dan Tyminski from Alison Krauss and Union Station sang "Man Of Constant Sorrow" in an original and soulful way on the soundtrack. He also wrote and played the guitar part that gave the song a new life. But just for the record, George Clooney is a very good singer. We'd already recorded Dan singing the song to find an arrangement and, at the very least, give George something to work with. If there had been more time to get George up to speed, he could have sung that song himself. When we did Walk The Line with Joaquin Phoenix, for instance, we had six months with him to get him into the life of Johnny Cash. With George, we had two or three weeks, and it wasn't enough time for him to record a credible hit country record. The singers in country music in general, and bluegrass music in particular, have been learning that art for decades (in most cases), and they absolutely lay down the law. For George to do that song with complete authority, he would have had to go out and perform on the road and spend time in the studio recording to get a feel for how that all works. It is not something one can do overnight, not even George Clooney. George has been typically self-effacing about that, but the fact is that George Clooney is a big part of the reason this music did cross into the 21st century. The video for "Man Of Constant Sorrow," which featured George and the Soggy Bottom Boys in full character, was played on CMT and other video channels for years after our soundtrack came out.
The recording process started one afternoon upstairs at Ocean Way Studios in Nashville when we invited the incredible group of musicians who became the musical cast for the film to get together, meet the Coens, and play some songs. We had asked Gillian Welch to be the hostess, so to speak, for these sessions because we didn't know if the members of the very tight knit old-time music community would look at us as interlopers -- we were concerned that since it was such a lighthearted piece, they might think we would not take what they do seriously. Gillian was a great ambassador, and I don't think we could have done it without her, and we certainly couldn't have done it without the help and guidance of her manager, Denise Stiff.
One by one, these extraordinary musicians came in. We told them what we were doing and asked them if they would sing some songs for us. By the end of that day, we had a good sense of who and what would be good where, and we drew up a plan. Our chief engineer, Michael Piersante, who recorded everything, did some research into Thirties recording techniques, and we set up to record live using period equipment and recording techniques. Michael set up a Decca tree -- a spaced microphone array used for capturing ambience that's mostly used in orchestral music -- three ribbon microphones set up on the points of an equilateral triangle with the single microphone closest to the singers and musicians, who were standing about twelve feet away. We recorded for about three weeks, and did it almost exactly according to plans. This was one of those rare occurrences where everything goes according to plan -- for years.
We worked in the old wooden room in Nashville -- the Sound Emporium Studio A that Cowboy Jack Clement built. Jack Clement was Sam Phillips' engineer on a lot of the early Sun Records -- stuff like "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" by Jerry Lee Lewis -- and Jack went on to produce Johnny Cash for almost 50 years. Jack is a great country songwriter, too, who wrote "Just A Girl I Used To Know" and "Guess Things Happen That Way" among many others. Cowboy Jack built this room which reflects acoustic music in the most beautiful way. Recording at the Sound Emporium is like playing inside a very good guitar. The room you record in is crucial to the way things sound, and what we were trying to do was make it feel as if you were there in the room in 1930 -- as opposed to making it sound old. We went the other way -- we were, instead, trying to make the music sound new and vital.
We, of course, didn't know where we'd wind up, going in. We weren't on a mission, exactly, but I did think that there was a fair likelihood that O Brother, Where Art Thou? would gain purchase in the times we were in. I knew several kids in their early teens who had started playing mandolins and string basses, and I knew there was an extraordinarily talented group of artists gathered, and that the Coens and Clooney and the others were getting ready to shine a light on them that hadn't been shone on them for some time. It made sense that it would work.
The Coens gave us all a wonderful gift, just as every artist on the soundtrack did -- Ralph Stanley, The Fairfield Four, Emmylou Harris. Emmylou rings like a bell. She's a serious artist. Ralph Stanley conjuring "O Death" a cappella. Alison Krauss levitating "Down to the River to Pray." Gillian and Alison and Emmylou vamping a lullaby. The Coxes bringing to us the other world they live and sing in. The Fairfield Four scoring the flood. Norman Blake was the conscience of the proceedings. John Hartford gave us his last breaths -- this was, in one way, his final gift to us all.
All the good that happened with the music of O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the result of an extraordinary group of musicians pulling together for the right reasons. In that way, it reminded me of the Rolling Thunder Revue. Here again were all these talented people, all giving into this center, to one incredible show. As I've learned over the years, shared generosity of that sort is very powerful in itself.
Back at the time we were making O Brother, record companies were still very much in control. I think 1999 may have been the biggest year ever for the record companies. They were very powerful then, and it felt like they were controlling music. Yet, it was obvious that these companies had let the cat out of the bag, and that they were cutting quality and trouble was brewing. The Internet was starting to raise its head, too. Yet we were protected in a sense because doing music for a movie puts a screen between you and the record company. It gave us a much freer rein. From the start, I thought that with this bright light being shone on these incredible musicians, there were unlimited possibilities. So the movie allowed us the frame to celebrate this music that was done without any commercial considerations whatsoever.
And yet, the soundtrack became a phenomenon, and changed a lot of our lives for the better. The most amazing story is of James Carter who sang the first song on the album. James Carter was in the penitentiary at Parchman Farm in Mississippi in 1959 when Alan Lomax recorded him singing "Po' Lazarus," which is a hundreds of years old song. When the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack was number one in the country, the Lomax Foundation hired a detective and tracked James Carter down. He was married to a storefront preacher in Chicago, and didn't even remember recording the song. 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.
In one way or another, that was the cycle of O Brother for us all. People got to buy houses who had never owned a house before. Ralph Stanley made millions of dollars. How great is that? It should have happened to him fifty years before. How did this experience change my life? It gave me a lot more freedom that I have worked hard not to relinquish. And the more freedom I've been given, the more liberties I've taken.
Going back into the vaults all these years later and listening to the things that didn't go on the original soundtrack album, we were immersed in that time again. Mikey Piersante remarked that he could close his eyes and see the cats playing in the room again. I could too. That was an intense time and the experience focused us -- we didn't focus it. It feels good to expand upon and, in a sense, complete such a beautiful musical picture.
For many of us, O Brother was part of a musical education. It helped extend this important Twentieth Century musical legacy into the Twenty-First Century. We will always be deeply honored and very thankful that when it came to making the music for O Brother, Where Art Thou? everybody involved listened very closely -- and that all of you did, too.