Skip to main content

O Brother at 15: Finding a Fortune


O Brother, Where Art Thou? came out 15 years ago this month. My preoccupation with the soundtrack eventually led me to playing the banjo and old-time music.

The Coen Brothers have been among my favorite filmmakers ever since seeing Raising Arizona by mistake. Back in the era of video rental, I can't remember what we meant to rent, but we were given the wrong cassette. My pre-adolescent self didn't quite know what to make of the goofy comedy, but I liked it. The seeds of obsession were sewn.

Fargo was big in high school, but The Big Lebowski was bigger among my friends when it came out my freshman year of college. We were among a very few who were there during its brief stay at our local, wannabe art house theater. Soon, we were binge watching the Coens' earlier movies like Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink (my personal favorite) and even The Hudsucker Proxy, which doesn't get as much respect as, say, Blood Simple.

We were junkies for Coen Brothers' use of local dialect and idiosyncratic dialog. My friends and I would quote them incessantly. We'd probably find ourselves annoying today. We even did a Big Lebowski themed Halloween costume. And so when O Brother came out in 2000, it was no surprise we were there opening weekend.

The movie had everything you could want from a Coens joint. The infectious dialog. The alluring visuals of Depression Era America. The quirky humor. But most especially the soundtrack. It was nothing short of a revelation.

RELATED: Tracing the Banjo Addiction

Produced by the legendary T Bone Burnett and featuring a mix of bluegrass standards, gospel, blues and a touch of old-time, the soundtrack went on to win three Grammy awards in 2002. It spawned the concert documentary Down From the Mountain. Most of all it got me interested in hillbilly music.

I remember getting the soundtrack for Christmas. This would have been 2001. I played it nonstop for I don't know how long. I'd stick on repeat and fall asleep to it. It was my introduction to Ralph Stanley, John Hartford, Gillian Welch, Norman Blake and Harry McClintock. Plus it was the first time I ever heard "Indian War Whoop," which is an all time great fiddle tune.

It's true I didn't get my first banjo for another six years and three months, but there's no doubt the O Brother soundtrack opened my ears to the kind of music I play today. I can't believe it's been 15 years since I first saw this endearing classic.

RELATED: My First Banjo

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Highwoods Documentary Not a Lost Cause After All

So, once upon a time, I tried to drum up support for a crowdfunded documentary project about the Highwoods Stringband. I donated money to help out, and more than a year later I provided an update on the slow progress. Last I heard, there was some old footage of the Highwoods they were trying to acquire. It's been three and a half years now that I first heard about the project, and I still haven't received my DVD.

I figured that's the risk you take with these crowdfunded, Kickstarter-type projects. I had all but given up the documentary as a lost cause. Until today. If I managed to convince any of you to help fund the project, I felt it my duty to pass along this update directly from Highwoods mainstay Walt Koken.
"After several delays and setbacks, we, the members of the Highwoods Stringband and Mudthumper Music have procured the vintage footage and photos in cooperation with the original producers and put them into the hands of another videographer, Larry Edelman, in …

Master and Apprentice: Banjo Builder Workshop in Historic Peninsula, Ohio

The 191-year-old Peninsula, Ohio, provided the backdrop to a parade of pedestrians making their way from station to station across the bucolic village for Music on the Porches on Saturday.

Inside the close confines of Bronson Church, founded in 1835, a master and apprentice presented a free workshop on the art of instrument building. That master being the renowned banjo builder and artist Doug Unger and his former apprentice Mark Ward.

Unger and Ward began the workshop by playing several old-time tunes, discussing their work and the music, and taking questions from the audience. Unger then invited the spectators to step up to the front to see the instruments.

Postcards: Vinyl Hunting Tour

Tuesday was a perfect day for a short driving tour to scour record stores for some vinyl. At my third stop, The Vinyl Groove in Bedford, Ohio, I came upon these two albums. The top one is Ed Haley, "Parkersburg Landing" (Rounder 1010), a selection of home recordings made in 1946 and released in 1976. The other is "Galax Va. Old Fiddlers' Convention" (Folkways FA 2435), released in 1964. Together they set me back $11 plus tax. It was a good day.