'O Brother' Soundtrack Is Talk Of Bluegrass Convention

Activities culminate in awards show Thursday.

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — The benign shadow of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" loomed over the opening ceremonies of the 2001 World of Bluegrass convention as it kicked off Monday.

Convention-goers at the Galt House Hotel heard not one but two keynote addresses on the wonders worked for bluegrass music by last year's popular Coen brothers film.

T Bone Burnett, producer of the best-selling "O Brother" soundtrack album, was scheduled to give the opening address but canceled for family reasons. His remarks were read by John Grady, a senior vice president at Mercury Records, the label that issued the album. Grady supplemented Burnett's musings about the movie and music with his own observations.

"It's great to come back where something you said came true," Grady said, beaming. "Last year, I came here touting a soundtrack that could possibly do something great for this music. ... I was just the flaky guy from Nashville who sold Shania Twain records."

Grady reported that the soundtrack has sold more than 3 million copies worldwide and that its spinoff, the recently released Down From the Mountain (Lost Highway), has sold 300,000. When the soundtrack artists played Carnegie Hall in June, Grady said, it sold out in less than three days — at $115 a ticket. The movie itself, Grady noted, reaped more than $45 million — more than twice the total generated by the Coens' critically lauded "Fargo."

"Down From the Mountain," the D.A. Pennebaker/Chris Hegedus documentary about the making of the soundtrack, will debut December 6 on PBS, Grady said, and in January, many of the musicians featured on the soundtrack will launch a 25-city tour.

Burnett's conclusions about the music ranged from the aesthetic to the technical. "It has been a good year for traditional American music," the musician/producer wrote. "I have heard this record referred to as bluegrass music, and I suppose that is a good enough catch phrase for it. But when we were doing it, we thought we were making a rock and roll record — that is to say we thought we were making swing music, dance music, love-not-war music. ... For me, this record began about five or six years ago when I was in my kitchen with the abstract artist Larry Poons, talking about Ralph Stanley."

Burnett said Poons had remarked to him that, "We live in an age of music for people who don't like music." This set Burnett to thinking about real versus manufactured music. "What he was saying was this: the record business learned years ago that not that many people like music. Some people can do without it, some people are annoyed by it. ... The basic record company philosophy has for some time been that if you remove the aspects of [a particular form of music] that the audience finds challenging, you have a better chance of selling the stuff. I suppose you could find parallels in country music as well."

Nonetheless, Burnett noted, authentic music can benefit from wide exposure, alluding to the upsurge in popularity jazz experienced from Ken Burns' PBS series on the music.

While understanding bluegrass' impulse to compete with flashier forms of music, Burnett lamented the modernization of the genre. "As technology began to make incursions into music, bluegrass musicians began attempting to apply it to their craft. Everyone got his own microphone. Everyone had a monitor. People began to put pickups on banjos. ... I have been fighting plastic drum heads for many years. I would say the same about banjos. They sound better with calfskin heads."

"We have concentrated too long on attack," he wrote. "We must turn our interest back to tone. The attack is the least interesting part of the sound of the drum. The tone and the overtones are the most crucial elements in the alchemy of music."

After he finished reading Burnett's speech, Grady told the audience that all the bluegrass and traditional albums he has heard since the "O Brother" soundtrack success have met the high standards Burnett talked about. "I can't spot in any of these records where anybody sold out," he said. "You need to keep believing. You need to embrace the music. ... The purity of this music is what sold it."

A panel discussion on "What We Can Learn From 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?'" is scheduled for Tuesday's sessions.

The 2001 World of Bluegrass will continue through Sunday. On Thursday, the International Bluegrass Music Association, which sponsors the convention, will hold its annual awards show at the Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville.