Hurtin’, howlin’… and a hit!

Twang isn't driving O Brother soundtrack sales, it's truth


O COUNTRY, WHERE ART THOU?

You may never hear the Soggy Bottom Boys on the radio, but some local clubs do regularly feature acoustic old-timey and roots country music and are well worth investigating.

Backstabbers Matinee

at the Cameron (408 Queen West ) Sundays 6 pm

Crazy Strings Hoedown

at the Silver Dollar (486 Spadina) Wednesdays 10 pm

Cameron Family Singers Jam

at the Cameron, Saturdays 6 pm

June Pasher Matinee

at Club OV’s (1302 Queen West)

Country Music Store Jam

at the Country Music Store (2889 Danforth) Saturdays 3 pm

SPECIAL EVENT


O Brothers, Where Art Thou?

Toronto country string band the Backstabbers and guests play the old-timey music from O Brother, Where Art Thou? at the Silver Dollar February 9

Rating: NNNNN


in a bizarre instance of life imi-tating art, the scene from the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? in which a woman tries buying a Soggy Bottom Boys record and finds the sudden smash hit out of stock has been replayed in record stores across the country for the past month. Since its December 5 release, the old-timey soundtrack to the Coen brothers’ Depression-era reworking of Homer’s Odyssey has become one of Canada’s hottest-selling discs. Currently, it’s number four on Tower’s top-five sales list, while last week at Amazon.com it beat the Beatles to the number-one spot.

The O Brother soundtrack has sold 22,000 copies here, although it might’ve been gold by now if stores could’ve kept it in stock over the holiday break. No one anticipated this kind of demand for a collection of pre-country mountain music at a time when disposable teen pop rules retail.

“We went out with what we thought was a reasonable number,” says Greg Barclay, director of national sales and marketing for Universal Music Canada, “about 1,ooo pieces to cover Toronto’s downtown core and a few key stores. “We started seeing a reaction to the record when the film opened, but by that time we were already in the middle of Christmas madness, and during the holidays we go to a skeleton staff.

“The soundtrack isn’t getting a lot of radio or video play. Everyone seems to be walking out of the theatre straight into record stores to buy this disc. It’s one of those I-need-this-right-now kind of albums.”

Seeing the way the Yonge and Eglinton crowd were nodding along to the Soggy Bottom Boys’ performance of A Man Of Constant Sorrow at the opening-weekend screening I attended, it was clear the music was connecting.

While some trend-spotters have tried drawing a parallel with the fleeting bluegrass craze the Flatt & Scruggs soundtrack to Arthur Penn’s Bonnie And Clyde touched off back in 67, it’s not about the novel twang of the banjo this time. In fact, you barely hear strings at all.

What’s striking is the prominence of the voice, particularly in Dan Tyminski’s spirited rendition of A Man Of Constant Sorrow and Ralph Stanley’s mournful a cappella take on O Death.

Slightly cracking and at times out of pitch, there’s an unmistakable human quality to the performances that’s completely at odds with the over-produced sound of contemporary popular music. Alongside Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, the high-lonesome howl of the septuagenarian Stanley is jarringly exotic.

“When someone says, “All the music today sounds the same,’ they’re right,” laughs soundtrack producer T-Bone Burnett from his Los Angeles home. “Most of it is being made with the same software. With the Pro-Tools technology available now, once a performance is done it gets redone by the computer and everything gets put in perfect pitch and perfect time. Musicians think, “Why bother trying to play well if it’s all going to be corrected anyway?’ People are getting lazy.

“The music on the O Brother soundtrack is performed by people who can really play and sing. Like Louis Armstrong said in that Jazz documentary, “There’s good music and bad music,’ and the music Ralph Stanley makes is just good ­– it’s undeniable.”

It’s Stanley who, along with his late brother Carter Stanley, as the Stanley Brothers, arranged and recorded the definitive version of the ancient lament A Man Of Constant Sorrow upon which the Soggy Bottom Boys’ rendition in the film is based.

Over the years, the song was remade by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Rod Stewart and many others, but none approached the soulful power and harmonic elegance of the Stanley Brothers’ 1959 Newport performance ­– available on Clinch Mountain Bluegrass (Vanguard).

“It’s an epic song in the Greek sense,” explains Burnett, “just the kind of song that the Ulysses character ­– the great tactician who never gets it right ­– would sing in this version of the Odyssey. I’ve always liked the Stanley Brothers’ version of the song. The funny thing is, I originally brought it to the Coen brothers for their previous film, The Big Lebowski, but it wasn’t quite right.”

No one is happier that the song was nixed from The Big Lebowski than Ralph Stanley. He’s probably the only person who realized the soundtrack’s enormous hit potential.

“I thought it would do well, because there hasn’t been anything like this music in the movies for a long time ­– maybe never,” offers Stanley from his rural Virginia homestead. “People have been hearing the new style of country music for a while now, and I think they’re ready for something a little bit different.” timp@nowtoronto.com

O COUNTRY, WHERE ART THOU?

You may never hear the Soggy Bottom Boys on the radio, but some local clubs do regularly feature acoustic old-timey and roots country music and are well worth investigating.

Backstabbers Matineeat the Cameron (408 Queen West ) Sundays 6 pm Crazy Strings Hoedownat the Silver Dollar (486 Spadina) Wednesdays 10 pmCameron Family Singers Jamat the Cameron, Saturdays 6 pmJune Pasher Matineeat Club OV’s (1302 Queen West)

Saturdays 4 pmCountry Music Store Jamat the Country Music Store

(2889 Danforth) Saturdays 3 pm

SPECIAL EVENT

O Brothers, Where Art Thou?Toronto country string band the Backstabbers and guests play the old-timey music from O Brother, Where Art Thou? at the Silver Dollar February 9

ONLINE SOURCES

The Spud Mountain Radio Showwww.teleport.com/~martini/radio/show.htmlCountry Music Classicswww.countrymusicclassics.com

Country Roots www.wingatedesign.com

Old-Time Music

www.oldtimemusic.com

Miles Of Music mail-order

www.milesofmusic.com

ONLINE SOURCES

The Spud Mountain Radio Show —
www.teleport.com/~martini/radio/show.html

Country Music Classics —
www.countrymusicclassics.com

Country Roots — www.wingatedesign.com

Old-Time Music —
www.oldtimemusic.com

Miles Of Music mail-order —

www.milesofmusic.com

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