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Americana, the beautiful

Culture | A movie soundtrack introduces Americans to their musical heritage

Issue: "Casualty of 'peace'," March 24, 2001

It was a good day for American music when the soundtrack to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? became one of the biggest selling albums in the country, hitting No. 2 at Amazon.com, No. 14 on Billboard's top 200, and No. 1 on the country music charts.

Country music, in particular, had been in the doldrums, with record sales down, radio stations shifting formats, and the repertoire crowded with acts in hats and tight jeans that sounded indistinguishable from pop stars. It had gotten so bad that country music stalwarts George Strait and Alan Jackson put out a song, "Murder on Music Row," charging the industry with killing country music, "and for that someone should hang."

But with O Brother, people are rediscovering the very roots of country music in all of its purity and authenticity, what bluegrass legend Bill Monroe called the "ancient tones." The album includes old but timeless songs like "You Are My Sunshine," "Big Rock Candy Mountain," and "Keep on the Sunny Side." But it also introduces to the larger public a number of contemporary artists who have been keeping up those musical traditions as a living art form.

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The album features talented artists, such as Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, The Cox Family, the Whites, and Ralph Stanley, whose music can be found in the best record stores and on some rare radio stations under the classification of "Americana" music.

Of course, it took a Hollywood movie to get Americana music this kind of attention. The Coen brothers, known for their quirky farces with regional themes-such as Raising Arizona and Fargo-made another comedy, this one set in the Depression-era South, about escapees from a chain gang trying to make it home, with plot elements drawn from Homer's Odyssey.

But the Coen brothers put T-Bone Burnett, a veteran producer on the Christian music scene, in charge of the movie's soundtrack, which soon became the heart of the film. The amusing, though sometimes profane, antics of the characters are countered by the rich, sincere, and emotionally moving music.

Some might see the story-line as poking fun at the ignorant yokel who thinks he can get rid of his criminal conviction by being born again. But the baptism scene, with the white-robed, joyful worshippers, all to the tune of the ethereal, transcendent song "Down to the River to Pray"-performed by Ms. Krauss backed up by an actual Baptist choir-overwhelms the comedy and creates the impression that something profoundly significant is happening after all.

The fact is, much of this traditional music-and even the new Americana music being written by younger artists such as Gillian Welch-is about Jesus, salvation, and everlasting life. That Christianity profoundly influenced early American culture can be proven by the music that people used to sing.

The central song in the movie and the soundtrack is "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," a pilgrimage song about the troubles of life until sorrow gives way to joy on the "golden shores" of heaven. A scene in the movie satirizing the clownish brutality of the Ku Klux Klan obscures the greatness of Ralph Stanley's stunning vocal performance of "O, Death," but on the soundtrack the song is a chilling reminder that we cannot escape death and had better be prepared. A lighter tune, but no less pious, is the Sunday school classic "In the Highways," performed by the Peasall sisters, three little girls singing about being "somewhere a-workin' for my Lord." (When they performed on the Grand Ole Opry, the girls said they were homeschooled and haven't seen the movie they sang for, since it is rated PG-13 because of bad language-a testimony to traditional parenting, as well as traditional music.)

The story line actually tracks the history of country music, with its beginnings in work songs, church, and family gatherings, transformed by the radio and recording technology, turning what used to be a simple part of ordinary life into a commodity to be bought and sold.

The resulting music industry has its charms, but it has mutated into the purposeful ugliness of gangster rap, the synthetic slickness of vapid pop music, and the adolescent posturing of rock music. The success of the O Brother soundtrack may spur imitators and help music buyers discover a whole treasure-trove of music and performers they never knew existed.

When an art form or a culture grows decadent, the surest way to bring it back to life is not by constructing something completely new, but by returning to the source. The Renaissance rejuvenated stagnant Western thought and culture by going back to their sources in the Greek and Roman classics. When medieval Christianity fell into corruption, the Reformation went back to the Bible. By the same token, repairing America as a nation means returning to the Constitution and the republican virtues that gave our nation its greatness. And part of that cultural greatness can be heard in its music.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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