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O Brother, Where Art Thou? Original Soundtrack
Artist: Various artists
Label: Uni/Mercury Nashville
Length: 19 tracks

"Po Lazarus," the first track on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother Where Art Thou?, begins with the fall of a pickaxe. Right away we are taken back to a specific time and place, to a chain gang, where convicts are driven to hard labor. In the rhythm of the rise and fall of the axes, they find community, strength, and hope, making something beautiful even in the midst of trials. This song illustrates clearly what this funny and light-hearted film itself reveals—that gospel music is a sustaining force, something that cuts through cold logic, through the heaviness of daily trials, and through history. 

Community, strength, and hope—these virtues are at the heart of this entire collection of old American folk and bluegrass music. Or as the liner notes insist… "country music." 

The movie, for which T-Bone Burnett oversaw the production of this soundtrack, is a goofy comedy that pays tribute to Preston Sturgess. Sturgess’s film Sullivan’s Travels was about a movie director who wanted to do a harsh drama about the plight of the poor. (That film, incidentally, would be titled O Brother Where Art Thou?) Through a caper of mistaken identity, Sullivan actually becomes poor himself and learns firsthand what such suffering and persecution are like. He decides, in the end, that he would rather use his talents to provide downtrodden souls with something that would lift their spirits. Likewise, The Coen Brothers have cooked up a story that many critics have accused of being empty-headed and meandering. But what the movie really is eludes them; it’s an odyssey through a musical tradition. Clearly, the strongest moments in the film are musical, when the central characters, three bumbling buffoons, are forced into dumb silence in the presence of music that appeals directly to their hearts.

A producer with a knack for recognizing and supporting great talents (U2, Elvis Costello, Counting Crows, Sam Phillips, The Wallflowers, and Gillian Welch), Burnett has chosen songs for this soundtrack that reflect his deep appreciation and knowledge of American music. Harry McClintock’s performance of "Big Rock Candy Mountain" playfully expresses the dreams of a hobo soul, a place where "all the hens lay hard-boiled eggs" and "little streams of alcohol come trickling down the rocks." Other traditional favorites like "You Are My Sunshine" and "Keep on the Sunny Side" are here as well, echoing a time when such sentiments were not seen as cheesy, but as unifying dreams of a better life and a more innocent time. These aren’t the polished products of modern country music; these are real voices, with real stories behind them, singing their hearts out. 

Such authenticity has something to say to the superficiality of the Christian music industry as well. In context, the old hymn "I’ll Fly Away" is given a sincerity and a life that shows the real power of the hope in its lyrics. Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, and Allison Krauss bring haunting soul to "Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby." Krauss leads a stirring gospel chorus of "Down to the River to Pray." The Fairfield Four provide a showstopping number, "Lonesome Valley", with such conviction that it’s not hard to imagine the song starting revivals wherever it is played. And Ralph Stanley’s performance of "O Death" will send a chill down your spine. Burnett has gathered musicians and vocalists who can sing it the way it should be sung…honestly, without the gloss and pyrotechnics of big superficial studio productions. It might surprise you to know that this era of incredible and inspiring songwriting coincided with the Depression, when people were forced to seek homemade varieties of art and entertainment, and when their hearts were heavy with doubt and despair.

"I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," the film’s central song, best encapsulates the spirit of the affair. The song, supposedly an invention of the film’s central characters, tells tales of woe without any resolution or happy ending. But the effect of the song is to lift the spirits through the energy with which it is sung, as if by the very singing of it, the trials and tribulations are overcome.

So next time you’re burdened, put on the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? and really listen to it. It can’t hurt, and it’s more than likely to put a smile back on your face with hopes, melodies, and ideas that have stood the test of time for good reason. They’re honest, earnest, and true. This is real country music. Try it. You’ll like it.

Jeffrey Overstreet 4/27/2001
 
 

Jeffrey Overstreet writes regular reviews, news, and essays on the arts and Christian perspectives at the Looking Closer web page and in The Crossing, a magazine for Christian artists.  He has been published in Christianity and the Arts Magazine, The New Christian Herald, and AngliCan Arts Magazine, and he is a founding member of Promontory Artists Association.  You can contact Jeffrey at Promontory@aol.com


 

   
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