Can you believe that only 6 days ago I was risking life and limb running hill repeats in -stupid degree temps in St. Catharines? And, here I am running long (21.25k) in only moderately warm clothes (that I’m practically stripping off at the half way point) with the snow has all but gone. Weird. Still though, I’m running long today so I still have my work cut out for me so I’ve doubled up on two albums complete with old-timey mountain and bluegrass music to pass the kilometers with, the ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou‘ and ‘Cold Mountain‘ soundtracks.
Set in Mississippi during the Great Depression, the ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?‘ soundtrack, produced by T-Bone Burnett, uses bluegrass, country, gospel, blues, and folk music appropriate to the time period. The film, directed by the Coen Brothers and starring George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Goodman. With the exception of a few vintage tracks (such as Harry McClintock’s 1928 single ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain‘), most tracks are modern recordings that pretty much help put bluegrass and old-time mountain music back on the popular mainstream map.
The soundtrack was originally conceived as a major component of the film, not merely as a background or support. For this reason it was decided to record a soundtrack before filming. T-Bone Burnett was invited to design collections of music. One member of The Stanley Brothers, Ralph Stanley, personally took part in recording the music for ‘O Brother’, singing a cappella folk song ‘O Death‘. There is a notable use of dirges and other macabre songs, a theme often recurring in Appalachian music, just as in ‘O Death‘, like ‘Lonesome Valley‘, ‘Angel Band‘, ‘I Am Weary‘ (which was very appropriate at that particular moment of the run) in contrast to the bright, cheerful songs, like ‘Keep On the Sunnyside‘ and ‘In the Highways‘, in other parts of the film. ‘Indian War Whoop‘ performed by John Hartford is far and away the rallying cry of the lonely long distant runner if ever I heard one.
The soundtrack CD became a best seller, certified eight times platinum as of October 2007 with sales of 7.9 million copies in the United States as of January 2015. It won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2002, the Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals (for singer Dan Tyminski, whose voice overdubbed George Clooney’s in the film on ‘I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow‘, Nashville songwriter Harley Allen, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band’s Pat Enright), and the Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for ‘O Death‘ by Ralph Stanley.
Some of the artists on the soundtrack played a concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, which was recorded in the documentary film, Down from the Mountain, which in 2006, was ranked #38 on CMT’s 40 Greatest Albums in Country Music. In 2009, Rhapsody ranked it #8 on the Country’s Best Albums of the Decade list. In short, the album became a phenomena.
‘Cold Mountain‘, released two years later in 2003, starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger, and represents another stellar T-Bone Burnett project akin to the ‘Oh Brother‘ and ‘Inside Llewyn Davis‘ phenomenon’s . Jack White who performed five songs on the soundtrack, also had a role in the movie, where he acted and sang as the character Georgia.
The album won the BAFTA Award for Best Film Music and the World Soundtrack Award for Best Original Soundtrack of the Year in 2003. It was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score and the Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media. The songs ‘Scarlet Tide‘, written by T-Bone Burnett and Elvis Costello, and ‘You Will Be My Ain True Love‘, written by Sting, were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song in the same year. In 2005 both songs were nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Song Written for Visual Media. Both songs were performed by country singer Alison Krauss.
The movie, however, sucked. I mean, I really wanted to like it given all the great music n’ all but, geez, does anyone really like ‘ol Squinty-eyed Renee Zellweger? Not this guy. And Jude Law, shit, shoot me already. I’d rather have my eyeballs punctured with a dull pencil.
Songs from the soundtrack were later showcased at a special live concert performed around the time of the film’s release. Titled ‘The Words and Music of Cold Mountain – Royce Hall Special‘, the entire concert was videotaped and is available as an extra feature on the Cold Mountain DVD set – providing you were interested in stocking your DVD collection with such drivel. Performers included Jack White, Sting, Alison Krauss, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Anthony Minghella, T-Bone Burnett, and the Sacred Harp singers. Likewise, in the wake of the success of this album, ‘Back Roads to Cold Mountain’, a collection of Appalachian Folk songs compiled by ethnomusicologist John Cohen, was released in 2004.
Given the blank-faced antipathy normally reserved for film soundtracks, it was an especially curious genre-trump when 2001’s roots-heavy ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ soundtrack garnered itself shitloads of commercial success (over 6\xBD million sold!) and tons of critical woo-hooing (including a fairly unexpected Album of the Year Grammy). Credit superstar producer T-Bone Burnett’s archivist instincts, or the lunatic collision of an Appalachian folk song and George Clooney’s shameless mug – either way, ‘O Brother’ is single-handedly responsible for tugging the soundtrack out of its premature grave and granting American folk its first truly popular revival.
For the ‘Cold Mountain’ soundtrack, Burnett has burrowed back into his yellowing sack of nuggets and emerged with a fistful of gritty, mid-19th-century classics and long-lost Americana. The resulting record combines original orchestral scores, contemporary shape-note singing, covered obscurities, and freshly written songs, all held in place by the commercial super-spike of Jack White (and aided by the big-name-songwriter credits of Elvis Costello and Sting).
Performing a handful of traditional cuts and one original, White is ably backed up a dream – team of dusty country players, including Dirk Powell on banjo, Mike Compton and Norman Blake on mandolin, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle. White opens the record with ‘Wayfaring Stranger‘, a tortured traveling ballad (previously taken on by Johnny Cash, Sam Bush, Alison Krauss, and Emmylou Harris); while White’s homeward-bound moans are sometimes disappointingly resigned, the trembling acoustics of his bandmates are more than sufficiently agonized, and ‘Wayfaring Stranger‘ is as inviting as it is defeated. White’s lone original, the sweet and acoustic ‘Never Far Away‘ also benefits from the kind of soft, dynamic backing that Meg White just can’t seem to provide for him (and sees more of Norman Blake’s mandolin, with cello by Nancy Blake).
Krauss’ pairing with Elvis Costello, on the Costello-written ‘The Scarlet Tide‘, is far less overstated: A pretty (if ultimately benign) piano melody and some subtle cello rub quietly, backing up Krauss’ breathy coos. Composer Gabriel Yared also contributes four sweeping, orchestral breezes that pile up on top of each other at the bottom of the record; while appropriate for the film, they’re unnecessary and cumbersome on the soundtrack, upsetting the dirty, proletariat posturing of the album’s other cuts.
While this soundtrack never really matched the success of the whole ‘O Brother’ juggernaught, it’s still an oddly compelling collection, with a small handful of traditional cuts finally getting the wide release they deserve. My only issue is though, is that all the cool folky-twangy bits come at the beginning of the soundtrack leaving all the orchestral anthems at the end, at a time I could have used a little more hutzpah to liven my step. Despite that, it’s still an interesting dip into grubby, pre-radio pop. Perfect for the back roads I ran today on an otherwise dingy, damn, overcast, cool January afternoon.