A Cow on the Roof of a Cottonhouse, or How I Learned to Love Bluegrass

Lawd, lawd, bring him dead or alive

Open on a chain gang. Low warbling voices begin to rise over the sound of pick-axes and splitting rocks. With this sequence of sounds, I’m back, twelve years old in my den watching the sepia-toned Mississippi fields of the Coen Brothers’ finest film (in my personal opinion, anyway…though the Dude does abide…) fade into view on the screen.

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The beginning of O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of my favorite film openings, and I think about the openings of films more than the average human. Sometimes I even put on my headphones and walk out the door to a specifically timed playlist to make my commute “montage worthy.” The point is that the quality of the opening is hugely dependent on the music chosen. When I hear the low voices of those prisoners, something stirs, and I know this film is special.

One evening as the sun went down, and the jungle fires were burning

Fade away from the chain gang and we meet our unlikely heroes, scurrying through a field as a new song, much less ominous, accompanies their escape. The swift tonal change establishes these three as different from the haunting men of the chain gang. Their outlook is brighter, skipping guitar to the prisoners’ solemn gospel chorus. The original Odyssey has a lot going for it, but what that hero’s journey was missing was the perfect soundtrack. In O Brother, this is remedied.

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The Coen Brothers transform the many adventures of Odysseus into a modern epic tied together with song. The film weaves music in with the dialogue and uses it to guide the story — tying together a narrative of politics, race, and a single man’s search for redemption. More than just background, though, the Coens establish the soundtrack itself as an important character in the story. (I find myself attached to movies that do this, and to musical theater for the same reason.) O Brother is entertaining, to be sure. It’s funny and tragic and rich, full of complex characters and historical themes. But the music in this film also dipped deeply into my personal narrative, introducing me to a part of my heritage that I’m not sure I would have come to love as much without this film.

Who shall wear the starry crown, good Lord show me the way

I never had conventional musical tastes. My early childhood was peppered with Motown, Sinatra, and 90s country music. Of course I had my run-ins with the music that makes a millennial a millennial (you know — boy bands, the Spice Girls, that foray into alternative rock, and of course Taylor Swift), but I was always that person digging through my parents’ old vinyl and CD’s begging to listen to a certain album that I loved for no explainable reason. For me, music is always about memory, with certain sounds tangled up in certain events or periods of my life. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to songs of the past. As I listened to them for the first time, I was imprinting my own memory on them, while also connecting with the memories of those who came and loved them before me.

I bid farewell to old Kentucky, the place where I was born and raised

See that was the strange thing about the music in O Brother. Even as I heard it for what I knew was the first time, it didn’t feel like a new discovery: I felt like I was supposed to know it, that it was part of my identity, already in my bones. And maybe I’m getting melodramatic, but my deep connection with this movie, even at a young age, moved something within me. The blend of traditional folk and bluegrass music was something I didn’t know that I loved, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? delivered it to me in a convenient package of George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson lit up in warm greens and browns, trekking the backroads of Mississippi during the Great Depression.

Hand Train - O Brother Where Art Thou - Filmgrab

O Brother is a story of the power of music to move people and bring them together. It’s the story of a hero learning who he truly is through the power of one song. And as I got swept up in the epic, it brought me together, filled a hole, slotted a puzzle piece I didn’t know was missing. When I heard the fiddles, the banjos, the mandolin riffs that accompany this piece of cinema, I experienced a strange sort of nostalgia, a déjà vu for events that had never happened. A feeling overwhelmed me, a yearning for a place — for unpaved roads that wound up the Appalachian Mountains, for the smell of freshly baked sourdough bread, for the laughter of my mother and grandmother stringing green beans into a plastic bag on the deck of an old houseboat. I recognized myself in this music, and I knew it was part of me, important to my soul.

Come lay your bones on the alabaster stones, and be my ever-loving baby

O Brother and its soundtrack opened up a brave new world to me: bluegrass and traditional American folk music. I wasn’t satisfied with just one CD: It had kindled a spark, and I wanted more. When I was 12, I went with my mother to the Down From the Mountain concert when it came through Louisville. I may have been the youngest person there by a couple decades, but I loved every minute of it. My mother also gave me Patty Loveless‘s Mountain Soul, which would prove to be the second missing piece of my musical heart. After a foray into the country pop so prevalent in the nineties, Patty returned to her Pikeville roots on this album, and it came to define a certain era of my life.

The songs spoke to me. “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” is hauntingly beautiful, and every mention of the places my mother had talked about growing up brought my heritage, what it was and what it wasn’t, into clearer focus for me. “Pretty Little Miss” takes me back to my first car and driving back roads with the windows down.  

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And then there was “Soul of Constant Sorrow.” I had already learned to love Dan Tyminski’s vocals in the O Brother arrangement of this traditional song. But in Patty I discovered something new. The bones of the song were the same, but she made it her own, adding her own unique link to the chain of people who had loved and arranged and sung those words. I loved that. I loved that the same song could be passed down for so long, changing keys and voices but never losing its core. This concept is a huge part of the Bluegrass tradition, a musical heritage evolving from generation to generation. People may sing the same words, but they make them mean such different things.

Some glad morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away

Once I found Bluegrass, I couldn’t escape it. Luckily for me, the popular music industry was similarly enamored, and the early aughts brought a plethora of New Americana options to my eager ears. Maybe I was in the right place at the right time, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so much of my favorite contemporary music — bands like the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons — is clearly linked to the music of my ancestors. They are Appalachia’s musical progeny, no less a child of the mountains than I am.

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I have a theory about the O Brother soundtrack. In my opinion, the album is way more important to the direction of popular music than people give it credit for. In fact, I’d argue that it is directly responsible for the Americana revival that has dominated so much of popular music for the past decade and a half. Now some people may disagree with me (Zelda has her qualms). But the fact of the matter is no album did so much to bring Bluegrass into the homes and ears of so many. It was named Album of the Year for a reason. And maybe that reason is that, like me, people recognized something of themselves in the guitars and banjos, the twanging vocals and gospel harmonies. This is the lullaby of America, the music this country grew up on. No other music is so wholly ours (with the possible exception of blues and jazz, but even they have roots tangled up in this tree).

From the first notes, I knew this was my music. It was my mother’s music, and my grandmother’s, and my great-grandmother’s before that. And in making this film, the Coens did so much more than create an entertaining couple hours of film or a creative twist on a classic tale. They took me home.

My latest sun is sinking fast, my race is nearly run…

 

5 thoughts on “A Cow on the Roof of a Cottonhouse, or How I Learned to Love Bluegrass

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