Released on this day in 2000, several weeks ahead of the film itself, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack would catch on slowly, but it would eventually sell upwards of 7 million copies while winning a broad new audience for contemporary artists performing a style of American music–bluegrass–that had been absent from the pop charts for five decades or more. Of the hugely popular album widely credited with sparking a major resurgence of interest in her chosen musical genre, the bluegrass artist Rhonda Vincent said to the Los Angeles Times in 2002, “To me the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack is not bluegrass, but as long as people love the music, who cares what it’s called?”
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a loose adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey starring George Clooney as the fast-talking escaped convict Ulysses Everett McGill, who must survive encounters with sirens, a Cyclops and a posse of hooded Klansmen on an epic journey home to Ithaca (Mississippi) to prevent his wife, Penny, from marrying another man. Deciding early on to employ a soundtrack appropriate to the film’s setting in the Depression-era South, the Coen brothers enlisted songwriter-producer T-Bone Burnett to find the right music, and he found it in Nashville, though not within the country-music establishment. As the soundtrack’s liner notes put it, the sound that Burnett and the Coens were looking for was the sound of country music “before the infidels of [Nashville’s] Music Row expropriated that term to describe watered-down pop/rock with greeting-card lyrics.”
They found that sound alive and well and in the capable hands of musicians whose roots date back across decades—Ralph Stanley and The Fairfield Four, for instance—and others who had made their careers working in a country vernacular far older than themselves—Gillian Welch, Allison Kraus and Emmylou Harris, most prominent among them. Using these and other contemporary musicians, Burnett completed work on the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? before the first frame of the film was shot, and the Coens consciously built many memorable scenes around songs like Krauss’s rendition of “Down To The River To Pray” and “Man Of Constant Sorrow,” by the fictitious Soggy Bottom Boys (featuring the real-life Dan Tyminski and Ron Block).
Within several months of its release, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack had topped the country album charts, but its crossover to the pop charts came much more slowly. By August 2001, the film had left theaters in the United States, but the album was still building momentum. It finally reached the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart of pop albums in March 2002—the longest climb to #1 for a pop album in the modern era.