State of Grace
Crossing Muddy Waters
It's hard to know what to make of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack winning the Country Music Association's 2001 album of the year—much less its Grammy—given that the liner notes of the CD blast away at the country music industry with such calculated aim. We learn that country music has become simply "watered-down pop/rock with greeting-card lyrics"; it specializes in "cultivated hothouse blooms that flaunt their colors on radio stations from coast to coast." That's not the sort of scorched-earth rhetoric that usually wins the applause of the attacked.
And yet applaud they did, shamed into it, perhaps. The soundtrack, under the direction of producing and songwriting demigod T-Bone Burnett, sought to capture the "original country sound" in a way that would winsomely render the beauty and power of music that more and more comes across, tellingly, as "ethnic." Burnett attracted a remarkable collection of musicians, ranging from living legend Alison Krauss (boasting ten Grammies), who leads an angelic choir in "Down to the River to Pray," to Ralph Stanley (billed as "The King of Mountain Soul"), who delivers a harrowing a cappella rendition of "O Death." The CMA was right: the record is a treasure, and after listening to it one is confronted with the obvious question: What is this? And what does it mean?
The very confusion over what to label this record and the musical world that it evokes—is it "Folk"? "Americana"? "Old-Time Music"? "Mountain Music"? "Southern Vernacular"? "Roots"? "Country"?—speaks of both a troubling cultural disarray and a salutary historical moment.
Most hearteningly, the "roots" phenomenon may ...1