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O Brother, now what for country music?

By Jeffrey B. Remz, May 2002

The success of the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack cannot be denied. After all, since its release in December 2000, the soundtrack with folks like Alison Krauss and Ralph Stanley supplying the music to the well-received Coen Brothers film has amassed sales of about 5 million copies.

The soundtrack topped the Billboard country album charts for weeks and at one point was the best selling album in the country, any genre.

Not to mention five Grammys including best album for any category and a very well received Down From the Mountain Tour in late January and early February, which was so successful that it's going to be reprised starting in late June in an expanded version.

Despite all outward appearances of success, however, there generally has been one place that you're unlikely to hear the "O Brother" soundtrack to any significant degree - country radio.

In a period where country music - like most genres - has seen a sales slide, will the "O Brother" music serve as a wake-up call and be the harbinger of a shift in country music?

According to a number of radio station, retail and record company leaders interviewed, it is not at all clear that country radio will respond or change.

But one area that clearly has benefitted has been bluegrass music, the music most closely associated with the soundtrack, which in reality includes a combination of bluegrass and a close cousin in Old Time music.

The song that attracted most of the attention from the soundtrack was "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" by the Soggy Bottom Boys. The song was released to country radio three times as a single but never did that well.

Why depends on who you talk with.

"They tried it initially. then they did it after the CMAs, and then they did it after the Grammys," says Ken Irwin, one of the heads of Rounder Records, which helped promote the "O Brother" album. "It didn't really have any impact at all. It's a tough thing."

"A lot of people still subscribe to the lowest common denominator approach to radio - what can we safely play that people won't press the button and turn the station," says Irwin.

Jon Kerlikowske, general manager of the Tower Records Nashville store, said radio stations in secondary markets are "definitely playing it, especially those that have Americana formats. In that regard, sure."

But the secondary, smaller markets are not those reporting their airplay to the Billboards of the world, who help make the charts, which could determine the success of the album.

Dave Kelly, programmer for WKDF, Music City 103 in Nashville and formerly with rival WSIX, says, "In order for something to have success on the charts, you have to have unanimity between radio stations. The stations that already have had success for it have already played it. You have to have 155 radio stations (playing it) at the same time."

"I think that it's proving that there are guys who may have missed the boat," says Kelly. "If you don't reach critical mass, then it's not going to go up the chart."

Paul Allen, the outgoing head of Country Radio Broadcasters, a national group of country radio stations, says, "It doesn't test as well as a heavily rotated piece of music, but many country stations, in fact, most country stations, acknowledge the important of that particular song and in the music marketplace."

Allen says it his understanding that consultants - the folks who advise radio stations what to play - said DJs should announce it's from the soundtrack and a little bit about it instead of including it as part of 12 songs ina row "where it would tend to stand out," say Allen.

And Allen, too, seems to acknowledge radio missed the boat on this album.

"The general nature of programmers as we approach the middle of 2002 is to err on the conservative side as opposed to erring in a way that would turn off the listener base. I realizes an album that sold 5 million units is pretty popular, and who are you turning off, but if you listen to the general sound of a radio station, it's far more conservative today than five, six, seven eight years ago. It's the nature of consolidation."

Kerlikowske says, "Nothing has had anything affect on radio itself in three or four years. Radio (play)lists are getting tighter and tighter, and something like this isn't going to break it. Not to mainstream (radio). You're not going to listen to (Nashville's) WSIX at 2 p.m. and hear a cut off of 'O Brother'."

Larry Daniels of Daniels Country Radio Resources of Tempe, Ariz., a radio station consultant, lamented the ' conservatism of radio stations. Daniels, who advises seven stations on what songs to play says it is "kind of sad in a way because one of the things that make stations more interesting is playing different types of country."

The nature of the radio business in recent years has been consolidation with the bottom line often being the bottom line.

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