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Bluegrass grows, thanks to 'O Brother'

movie still
The movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou" highlighted bluegrass musicians  

June 1, 2001
Web posted at: 5:16 PM EDT (2116 GMT)


(CNN) -- "A Man of Constant Sorrow" has brought a lot of joy, and attention, to bluegrass musicians.

The headline track off the "O Brother, Where Art Thou" soundtrack, originally recorded by the legendary Stanley Brothers before being lip-synched in the movie by an oiled-down George Clooney, has led a revival of a genre variably called mountain, world and "real music."


Listen to audio from the "O Brother, Where Art Thou" soundtrack

WAV "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" by John Hartford

WAV "O Death" by Ralph Stanley

Audio courtesy Mercury Nashville

Listen to audio from "Big Mon: The Songs of Bill Monroe"

WAV "Walk Softly" by The Dixie Chicks and Ricky Skaggs

Audio courtesy Skaggs Family Records

"'O Brother' has done wonders for me and anyone who plays this style," said Ralph Stanley, who recorded the old-time classic "A Man of Constant Sorrow" with brother Carter around 50 years ago and has two songs on the soundtrack. "'grass has really grown."

Bluegrass developed slowly since its inception 70 years ago, generating a loyal fan base despite a lack of radio airplay or commercial success. As when Elvis Presley recorded versions of bluegrass classics in the 1950s, the down-home genre has seeped into today's music, heard in bands such as the Dixie Chicks, Phish and Dave Matthews Band.

The "O Brother" soundtrack exposed bluegrass to a wider audience than ever, selling more than 1.5 million albums and setting up the first show in what may be a national tour on June 13 at New York's Carnegie Hall.

Country music star and producer Ricky Skaggs believes those who go straight from the "O Brother" soundtrack to bluegrass classics will not be disappointed.

"It never had to have implants or belly rings -- it's just great, pure music," said Skaggs, whose 1997 "Bluegrass Rules" is considered a key album in the genre. "It's not commercial. It's not Nashville. It's better than that."

What is Bluegrass?

Since Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys patented the genre in the 1930s, bluegrass generally has remained true to its roots while rubbing off on a range of other musical styles.

In its purest form, bluegrass blends fiddle, banjo, mandolin, bass fiddle and a Dobro (or resonating guitar) with close, high harmonies, according to Dan Hays, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Association.

Mainstream musicians like Ricky Skaggs have found success with bluegrass music  

After enjoying widespread popularity in the 1940s and early 1950s, bluegrass became less mainstream as country music became more "pop-oriented," Hays said. The genre regained its footing with the rise of folk music in the 1960s and 1970s, and with the creation of bluegrass festivals.

Bluegrass cultivated a small, loyal following, one that seemed to take pride in minimal radio airplay and perceived disconnect from the country establishment.

Much of this tight-knit fan base railed against anything but the traditional bluegrass sound, explained Jeff Mosier, who produced an Atlanta bluegrass radio show for 14 years before becoming a full-time performer 13 years ago.

"It's embarrassing to be associated with the subculture," said Mosier, calling collaborations such as "O Brother" and others involving legends like Ralph Stanley as vital to the development of bluegrass. "The music hasn't evolved that much."

But Skaggs said this sense of pride is a positive, keeping the focus on the music.

"When (music's) only a fad, when it's only outward appearance that matters, it starts to fade away," Skaggs said. "Bluegrass is still on that steady course. It picks up new wind and keeps on sailing along ... I love that about it."

A new generation of fans

Today's bluegrass is attracting new fans, and not only from its firmly rooted bastions of Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee.

Ralph Stanley is one of the pioneers of bluegrass music  

"I haven't gone anywhere in the world where I haven't run into bluegrass fans or a bluegrass band," Skaggs said.

Hays added that the IBMA, a trade organization for bluegrass professionals, has members in about 30 countries including the 'grass hotbeds of Czechoslovakia, Japan and Australia. The genre has more of an urban than rural audience in the United States, he said, noting 850 radio stations from San Diego to Boston regularly play bluegrass tunes.

"This is one of the best ages for the music," Hays said. "We still have many of the pioneers with us ... and there's a third generation of artists and fans that are creating a whole new wave of interest and growth."

Several mainstream country stars, such as Skaggs, Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss, have found success with bluegrass albums. Others, such as Mosier's "Blueground Undergrass," have embraced the genre and reinvented the music, juicing up their instruments in targeting largely college crowds.

Decades ago, performers such as Elvis, Buddy Holly and the Beatles incorporated elements of bluegrass into their own sound. Little has changed, with a diverse group of modern acts -- including the Dixie Chicks, Bob Dylan, Hootie and the Blowfish, Phish and Dave Matthews -- infusing bluegrass into their music.

The "O Brother" soundtrack is part of that trend, as well as pivotal in itself. Its high record sales have proven bluegrass can not only be popular, but profitable. While some worry that commercialism will ruin the raw, pure bluegrass sound, others welcome the exposure.

"You can touch someone with ... that fiddle, but it's hard to touch someone with a synthesizer or a drum machine," Skaggs said. "It's amazing seeing (young people) respond to real music."



renewed interest in something



category of artistic, musical or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form or content






very important, crucial

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