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The mountain music of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack eclipsed the movie

From left: T Bone Burnett (Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images), John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson and George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Universal/Getty Images), Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris (Mychal Watts/WireImage/Getty Images) 
From left: T Bone Burnett (Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images), John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson and George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Universal/Getty Images), Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris (Mychal Watts/WireImage/Getty Images) 
Graphic: Natalie Peeples
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Released 20 years ago this October, the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a Depression-era saga of three men—Everett (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro), and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson)—who break free of a chain gang to find a buried treasure. Along the way, the three pick up a talented young guitarist who’s just sold his soul to the devil; are chased by an evil sheriff; and record a quick song. As they continue on their journey, seduced by sirens and barely escaping the Ku Klux Klan, their record becomes a hit, which results in their full pardons, allowing them to achieve their ultimate goal: going home.

To score this epic, based on Homer’s Odyssey, writer-producers Joel and Ethan Coen called on T Bone Burnett, the legendary musician and producer who had also served as the music supervisor on their previous film, 1998’s The Big Lebowski. Burnett told NPR in 2011 that, after reading the script, he saw an opportunity to make the soundtrack a tribute to the classic-roots music he loved, to “shine a light on it that hadn’t been shown in decades.” A record release gets minimal publicity, he reasoned; a major motion picture starring George Clooney, much more so.

The decision was made to record the music before shooting the film. While the soundtrack includes a few vintage tracks, most of it consists of recordings of traditional songs by contemporary artists like Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, and Dan Tyminski; classic bluegrass artists like Ralph Stanley and the Fairfield Four were also drafted. Burnett researched recording techniques of the ’30s to capture an era-appropriate sound, recording with one mic in mono. The combination managed to introduce bluegrass, folk, and mountain (“old-timey,” as one character puts it) music to a whole new generation.

The film starts with two songs recorded long before O Brother: “Po Lazurus” is a recording of a Mississippi chain gang made by musicologist Alan Lomax while he was working on his 1959 Southern Journey LP series. Lomax was stunned by the beauty of the song, even more so because it was recorded while the men performed hard labor in the sweltering heat, the pounding of their axes their only accompaniment. The song, sung in the film by the prisoners still in the chain gang from which Everett, Pete, and Delmar escape, is credited to James Carter And The Prisoners. Burnett first discovered the song during a search at the Lomax archives, and after the success of the O Brother soundtrack, the original artist was tracked down: “Lomax archives licensing director Don Fleming and Lomax’s daughter, Anna Lomax Chairetakis, who manages her father’s archives, went to Chicago and presented Carter with his first royalty check—for $20,000—and a platinum CD bearing his name,” according to the L.A. Times. They found Carter in time to invite him to the Grammys; he also received additional royalties from the album, which he spent on a food bank and a church van before his death in 2003.

“Po’ Lazarus” is about a man who is hunted down and killed by a sheriff, foreshadowing the satanic sheriff character (played by Daniel von Bargen) who will trail the three convicts. But before that leg of their journey kicks off, the O Brother credits roll, resembling those for silent movies and set to the tune of the soundtrack’s other classic recording: “Big Rock Candy Mountain” by Harry McClintock from 1928. McClintock wrote the tune (made famous by Burl Ives in 1954), describing the perfect life that the many homeless and jobless men then riding the rails could only dream about: “Where the handouts grow on bushes / And you sleep out every night / Where the boxcars all are empty / And the sun shines every day.” The song sets up the lofty ideal with which Everett lures his friends, the $1.2 million treasure that will save them from their rough life.

In reality, their salvation will not be the treasure, but—appropriately for a movie where the soundtrack plays such an enormous part—music. But first, the three men flee to the home of Pete’s cousin, Wash (Frank Collison). Before they turn in for the night, they hear on the radio the soundtrack’s next song, “You Are My Sunshine,” the theme song for the reelection campaign of Pappy O’Daniel (Charles Durning). The song is a nod to midcentury Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis, who recorded his own popular version of the song (and claimed ownership of it, while the actual songwriting rights remain nebulous), and liked to play it on the campaign trail, riding a horse named “Sunshine.” “You Are My Sunshine” is one of the most popular songs ever recorded, but the full lyrics, featured on the O Brother soundtrack, are much sadder than many realize, with most people only familiar with its cheery chorus. The first verse tells a darker tale: “The other night dear, as I lay sleeping / I dreamed I held you in my arms / But when I awoke, dear, I was mistaken / So I hung my head and I cried.” Pappy, like most people, only focuses on the song’s more familiar—and upbeat—phrases.

Although Wash turns the trio in to the authorities (prompting the first of Clooney’s many deliveries of “Damn! We’re in a tight spot!”), they manage to escape and are soon lured by the lilting vocals of Alison Krauss’ “Down To The River To Pray.” The dreamlike scene depicts ghostly figures dressed all in white walking through a forest toward a mass full-body baptism, perfectly scored to the ancient spiritual that once appeared on the 1867 volume Slave Songs Of The United States. Krauss—a fiddle-playing champion from Champaign, Illinois—was an already-established bluegrass star, winning the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Recording for her single “I’ve Got That Old Feeling” in 1991. Krauss would go on to win 10 more Grammys that decade, and O Brother helped elevate her to the mainstream, showcasing her signature intonations on the hypnotic a cappella song. Both Delmar and Pete have religious experiences in the river, becoming baptized themselves.

The three escaped convicts then pick up Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) at an actual crossroads—a reference to famed musician Robert Johnson, who, legend has it, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his astonishing guitar skills. He tells them about a man at a radio station who will give them money if they “sing into a can,” so they set off to make the record that will make them famous. It’s here that Burnett’s musical research must have hit its toughest hurdle; he needed a traditional song so powerful and catchy that it would plausibly make the about-to-be-christened Soggy Bottom Boys famous, but not so powerful and catchy that it was already well-known. “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow” checked all those boxes. The song was written by Kentucky banjo player Dick Burnett, who had been a child prodigy before losing his eyesight in an attack fighting off of a mugger in his early 20s. The undeterred Burnett went on to release a slew of records in the 1920s with his partner, fiddler Leonard Rutherford. “Sorrow”—also known by its original title, “Farewell Song”—was one of Burnett’s many compositions eventually sung by a variety of people.

While not ubiquitous, “Sorrow” had been covered by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins (the latter’s lacy-vocal offering proclaiming her a “Maid Of Constant Sorrow”). The version that comes closest to the one heard in O Brother is probably bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley’s, as his wailing vocals capture the tune’s haunting mournfulness. In his NPR interview, T Bone Burnett recalled that Joel Coen was pushing for a more rock sound for the Soggy Bottom Boys’ version. Although Clooney practiced his vocals, it was eventually decided that there wasn’t enough time to train him properly, so Krauss’ bandmate Dan Tyminski both sang the song and played the jagged acoustic guitar that kicks it off. It’s the harmonized twang of backing vocals, which repeat the main lines of the lead singers’ plight, that really sets this “Man Of Constant Sorrow” apart—so much so that it’s totally conceivable that this one song would make stars out of the men who sang it. “Sorrow” shows up a total of three times on the soundtrack, twice in its more familiar rendition, and once as an instrumental, scoring one of the Soggy Bottom Boys’ many nights taking shelter around a fire.

A similar low-key evening offers an opportunity for another effective rendition of a classic, this time by Tommy. Performed by Chris Thomas King in the film, “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” originally appeared on legendary Delta bluesman Skip James’ 1964 album She Lyin’ and encapsulates Depression-era themes: “Hard times is here and everywhere you go / Times are harder than ever been before.” Thomas King mimics James’ high-pitched vocals, while displaying his own blues guitar prowess, established over several albums both before and after O Brother.

A more enthusiastic fireside traditional was provided by Krauss and Welch, who deliver a buoyant version of the hymn “I’ll Fly Away.” While the song is a spiritual that describes the joy of flying to heaven after leaving this mortal coil, here it also works as a cheerful description of the Soggy Bottom Boys’ life on the run, scoring their vagabond lifestyle as they hitchhike and leave money on windowsills after stealing cooling pies. While the song has been recorded innumerable times, Krauss and Welch’s version stands out by offering a genuinely angelic chorus. In the film itself, the vocals are provided by the Kossoy Sisters, identical twin sisters who were part of the mid-century folk revival in Greenwich Village.

Krauss and Welch’s voices also blended amazingly well when joined by Emmylou Harris for the a cappella “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby,” which scores a scene where three sirens seduce Everett, Pete, and Delmar. The recording is based on a lullaby (also in the Lomax archives), evident by the constant urging of “Go to sleep, you little baby.” The three voices are hypnotically alluring as they draw in the three men, who do, after all, wind up going to sleep.

Other cuts were more energetic, like The Whites’ optimistic rendition of “Keep On The Sunny Side” (sounding reminiscent of the Carter Family’s version decades prior), and the adorable “In The Highways,” sung in the movie by a group made up of Everett’s young daughters, and performed on the soundtrack by the Peasall Sisters. Thanks to their inclusion on the soundtrack, the group—composed of 14-year-old Sarah, 11-year-old Hannah, and 8-year-old Leah Peasall from White House, Tennessee—were the youngest group ever nominated for a Grammy at the time.

The darkest turn of Everett, Pete, and Delmar’s journey comes when they stumble into a KKK rally, fortunately just in time to save Tommy from being lynched. The traditional “O Death,” sung by a red-robed Klan leader on screen, is actually performed by none other than the aforementioned bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, then 77 years old, who had recorded the song a few times previously. For this version, he sings it a cappella in a terrifyingly threatening manner, making deals with the hereafter (“O Death / Can you spare me over for another year”) but sounding like he embodies death himself. Following this performance, Stanley became the first person inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in the new millennium.

O Brother’s climax is, naturally, music-related: Everett convinces his friends to help him crash a fundraising dinner as part of his attempt to win back his wife, Penny (Holly Hunter). Taking the stage, the Soggy Bottom Boys again perform “Constant Sorrow,” to the thrill of the enraptured crowd. The set also includes a performance of “In The Jailhouse Now” performed by Delmar’s Tim Blake Nelson. Although the revealed Klan leader/Pappy opponent Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall) tries to denounce the Soggy Bottom Boys for interrupting his lynching ceremony earlier (and for being integrated), the crowd sides with the band instead, running the racist Stokes out of town on a rail. Pappy kicks up “You Are My Sunshine” again, and is so pleased with this positive turn in his campaign that he pardons all three men outright.

Now that he’s officially out of prison, Penny agrees to return to Everett if he can give her back her old wedding ring, which was left in a rolltop desk in their old cabin. The trio makes one final journey back there, where they encounter the satanic sheriff, who’s ready to lynch them all, their graves already dug. Everett drops to his knees and prays for salvation, and the Soggy Bottom Boys are miraculously saved by a flood, set to the tune of another a cappella song, this time, the soul-stirring traditional gospel standard “Lonesome Valley” by the Fairfield Four. The Four is a gospel group that has existed for almost a century, starting out as a trio in the Fairfield Baptist Church in Nashville and becoming famous on the radio, in a career trajectory not unlike that of the Soggy Bottom Boys themselves. “Lonesome Valley” describes Everett’s path to redemption: “You got to ask the Lord’s forgiveness / Nobody else can ask him for you.” As Everett begs God for deliverance from the sheriff, the universe miraculously responds with the flood, effectively and finally baptizing him. As the Soggy Bottom Boys float away, Tommy finds the ring in the rolltop desk.

This being a Coen brothers movie, this still doesn’t tie everything up neatly, as Penny claims that it’s not the right ring. But no matter. Everett is still back with his family, the ultimate treasure, as a classic recording of “Angel Band” by the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys takes us to the credits, the twinkling strings and tremulous vocals affirming the happy ending: “My strongest trials now are past, my triumph is begun.”

O Brother fared fairly well in the Coen brothers’ canon, led by Clooney’s Golden Globe-winning performance as the gabby, pomade-addicted Everett. But the soundtrack handily eclipsed the success of the film, as it was gobbled up by moviegoers anxious to play “Constant Sorrow” and the myriad other bluegrass classics on the soundtrack in their own homes. To date, it has sold over eight million copies. It won Grammys for not only Best Compilation Soundtrack, but also Best Album overall, along with Best Country Collaboration With Vocals for “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow” by the Soggy Bottom Boys, and Best Male Country Vocal for Ralph Stanley’s “O Death.” It also won many Country Music Association and International Bluegrass Awards. The soundtrack also spawned additional volumes and its own concert tour. And after the release of Down From The Mountain, a documentary featuring the performers from the album, that soundtrack won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.

The resonant songs that Burnett selected displayed the various types of salvation that the magic of music can provide. Twenty years later, the O Brother soundtrack remains intact as an engrossing volume of decades-old folk songs. It was educational in the best way—not only vital to the tale that O Brother told, but also taking us all back to the very roots of modern music, introducing a classic genre to a whole new generation.