Not only did the compilation take home a Grammy, an International Bluegrass Musican Association award and a CMA award (all for Album of the Year), but it has sold over 4 million copies and sparked the creation of the Down from the Mountain concert tour, documentary and soundtrack as well as the comparable "O Sister" and "Blue Trail of Sorrow" compilations on Rounder.
A panel of roots-music mavens - Ken Irwin of Rounder Records, Grant Alden of No Depression magazine and Luke Lewis of Lost Highway/Mercury Records - discussed the unprecedented success of "O Brother" at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin March 16.
The panel, moderated by Country.com's Jay Orr, commented, "It's affecting us all, no matter what our interest in music."
Panelists discussed the soundtrack's conception, its release and initial sales, its lack of airtime on mainstream country radio stations and what its legacy of success will mean for future airplay and sales of bluegrass and other roots albums.
The soundtrack, recorded prior to the movie's filming, was produced by T Bone Burnett. Lewis said he'd heard about the tapings, and since he was a fan of the Coen Brothers, who directed, and had a friendship with Burnett that included a mutual "liking for the herb," he visited the studio. "T Bone was doing it as it was done 70 years ago," Lewis said of the studio setup and microphone placement.
Mercury took up the album. Lewis said he and Irwin established a "gentlemen's agreement," whereby Lost Highway would aid in promoting Rounder artist Alison Krauss in exchange for Irwin's and Rounder's input concerning the "O Brother" soundtrack.
Lewis was initially leery because soundtracks typically "aren't good for the business," he said. He pointed out, however, that the Coen Brothers are not receiving royalties from the album sales, while the artists are in fact earning a substantial amount.
"Ralph Stanley has a new tour bus," because of the soundtrack's success, Orr said, and a Jaguar to boot.
The unanticipated popularity of both the movie and soundtrack became apparent when the film opened in France, six weeks prior to its U.S. release. "They sold 70,000 albums in less than a week," said Lewis. Still, the film opened in the U.S. in only a handful of cities at a time, its buzz generated by word of mouth. The increasing numbers of viewers came away with an appreciation of the old time and roots music in the soundtrack, which led to record sales.
Irwin attributed this new musical awareness to the far reach of the cinema. "People might not go to a (bluegrass) concert, but bring them to a movie," he said.
Purchasers of the soundtrack, as it turned out, were not within a targeted demographic. Lewis did not attribute the album's high sales to marketing, and said that Disney ("O Brother's" distributor) considered the movie a "rural thing with a rural soundtrack," when in fact most sales went to urban consumers.
"The audience that bought this record is more the NPR audience than the country music audience," Alden observed.
Attempts at formal publicity for the album were further complicated by country radio's reluctance to play its tracks. Lewis was sympathetic to this exclusion on the part of country radio programmers because "it really doesn't sound like anything else on the radio."
Tracks from the soundtrack did get played on morning shows, Lewis said, also pointing out that the album "may be perceived as a novelty" among some radio programmers.
When discussing whether the success of "O Brother" has influenced subsequent decisions of country radio stations to play more bluegrass artists such as Krauss, Lewis acknowledged a "collective consciousness" on the part of many programmers that might be a backlash in response to the "O Brother's" popularity. The message some top-40 country radio stations are sending, Lewis said, is "'don't send us a bunch of bluegrass (because of the success of the 'O Brother' soundtrack)...we're very comfortable with this audio-prozac shit."
"It's like being bitch-slapped," he added.
Where publicity for the soundtrack did succeed was on CMT. Lewis said a film clip featuring George Clooney was released as a video. Because of the movie's success, CMT went on to program a "bluegrass rules" week, which gave many bluegrass artists a higher profile than they are accustomed to. "CMT is now a little bit more open to bluegrass videos" due to the success of the station's theme-week, Irwin said, adding that several bluegrass musicians have been approached about the production of videos for their songs.
But Ralph won't be usurping Garth's place on the playlist overnight. Bluegrass artists typically prefer to stay out of the mainstream. "I think it's more than suspicious; I think it's really fear," Irwin said of bluegrass artists' stance toward Nashville and the possible mainstreaming of the form.
Outside the recording booth, audiences may be grappling with their own reticence. While Rounder's "O Sister" is enjoying some success, Alden pointed to the low sales of the comparable "Songcatcher" soundtrack, as well as the less-than-hoped-for sales of albums by some artists, like Dan Tyminski, who appeared on the "O Brother" soundtrack.
The most obvious heir to "O Brother's" success is its companion production, Down from the Mountain. Alden called the concert "one of the 20 best shows I saw in my life." Irwin said that the exposure some bluegrass musicians are getting from their work in the Down from the Mountain concerts has prompted Nashville to hire them for more studio work.
"Most of the bluegrass musicians are really improvisationalists," said Irwin. He added that "These people are all glowing," from the musical opportunities the concerts provided.