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[whitespace] 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?'
Down From the Mountain Men: Tim Blake Nelson (left), George Clooney (center) and John Turturro belt out an old-fashioned 'O Brother' tune.

O Brother's Gonna Work It Out

Today's bluegrass favorites re-create the music of O Brother, Where Art Thou? on Down From the Mountain Tour

By Richard von Busack

IT WAS AN unforgettable experience to be at the press screening of O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Despite the thickness of the hillbilly jokes and the sometimes badly timed slapstick, I had a tangible sense of shock witnessing an audience that had never heard that kind of music before.

T. Bone Burnett's score offers an ace blending of old tunes and new stylists. The soundtrack takes Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch's ethereal duet on "I'll Fly Away," Ralph Stanley's keening on "O Death" and the Fairfield Four's moaning on "Lonesome Valley" and unleashes them on an audience that has probably never heard anything rootsier than the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Being a music without a specific place, these songs also relate to the local hard times. O Brother's title theme, Harry "Haywire Mac" McLintock's original version of "Big Rock Candy Mountain," haunts me--as it haunted author Wallace Stegner when he used the song as a title for his novel about the West. "Big Rock Candy Mountain" seems ominously specific. Just as it originally laughed at the pie-in-the-sky enthusiasms of the 1920s, the song also serves as the perfect musical accompaniment for the dotcom bust.

As O Brother's filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen, noted at the screening, "The music itself is not contemporary, and much of it was not even conceived with an eye to commercial exploitation. ... If it ever had a vogue, it is long past. ... It is homemade music." What went onscreen in O Brother, Where Art Thou? illustrates the music, more than the other way around.

Astonishingly, the film's soundtrack went gold. Despite lack of airplay, it surpassed many a much-hyped Nashville talent on the charts. Few sights are as gratifying as the music industry with its pants down. After country music had been defiled beyond recognition by the likes of Billy Ray Cyrus, the rawness, sweetness and sophistication of the O Brother soundtrack amazed thousands of fans, sending them back to American music's drawing board.

The film's favorites are now being re-created live with help from an all-star musical revue called Down From the Mountain. Coming to town is Stanley, whose "O Death" could put the fear of the Lord into the most rock-ribbed atheist. Also along for the show are Krauss and Union Station, featuring her justly famous guitarist Dan Tyminski (who dubbed in George Clooney's singing with the Soggy Bottom Boys in O Brother) and Emmylou Harris, who sang along with Krauss and Santa Cruz' Welch on "Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby."

The documentary of the first show on this tour, Down From the Mountain (by Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus), allows viewers to get a better look at New Orleans acoustic guitarist Chris Thomas King. In O Brother, Where Are Thou?, he plays a tag-along kid who sold his soul to the devil to learn guitar. The bit is based on the legend of Robert Johnson, who was supposedly an untalented youth who suddenly--diabolically?--could play better than anyone in the Mississippi Delta.

In the Down From the Mountain documentary, King strikes a different figure. In real life, he's a dandy, suave New Orleanian who's about as countrified as Wynton Marsalis. King's "John Law Burned Down the Liquor Sto'," the most irresistible track on the Down From the Mountain CD, has a drive and growl that's a little tougher than anything O Brother had time for.

Also on the roster at the Flint Center are the Whites: Sharon, Cheryl and Buck White, who have been playing together since the 1970s. Their version of "Sandy Land" in Down From the Mountain shows a playful mood much different from their aching, soulful version of the Carter Family's theme song, "Keep on the Sunny Side," on O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

The sad part of all of this is that roots music might turn into the flavor of the month. But these are booming times for roots: O Brother is only part of the wave, along with Dolly Parton's outstanding bluegrass recordings on the Sugar Hill label, and the soundtrack to Songcatcher, with the gifted young folk vocalist Emmy Rossum. When hearing this beautiful sound, you can only hope that the world will never turn its back on it again.

The Down From the Mountain tour plays Tuesday (Feb. 19) at 8pm at the Flint Center, 21250 Stevens Creek Blvd, Cupertino. Tickets are $45-$75. (408.998.TIXS)

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From the February 14-20, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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