LOS ANGELES — By all rights, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” should have been no more than a cult classic when it was released a decade ago. The movie, made by indie film world heroes Joel and Ethan Coen, placed star George Clooney in the middle of a wacky Depression-era tale equal parts grand ambition and grand larceny, with a soundtrack full of old-time American music, the likes of which had received scant attention on commercial radio in half a century or more.
Far from quickly finding its way to the midnight movie circuit, “O Brother” turned into a surprise hit — as did the soundtrack album. Not only did the T Bone Burnett-produced CD sell millions of copies, but it won five Grammy Awards, including the overall album of the year award, trumping nominated works from such high-profile contenders as U2, Bob Dylan and OutKast.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time for American roots music,” said Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum and author of the companion book to PBS’ “American Roots Music” series that surfaced in the midst of the “O Brother” phenomenon. “Even more so than the album, the film gave roots music, Americana music, whatever you want to call it, a face, and it gave it a story, a narrative, that you can attach these great songs to and bring them into the 21st century. And that’s what it did.”
A decade later, the “O Brother” soundtrack ranks as one of the 200 bestselling albums of all time, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. It’s been certified platinum eight times over for sales of more than 8 million copies.
“That was an extraordinary time,” Burnett said last week, gearing up for a 10th anniversary expanded reissue of the “O Brother” album, a two-disc set arriving in stores Tuesday with 17 extra tracks not contained on the original CD by artists such as John Hartford, Van Dyke Parks, Alan O’Bryant and Colin Linden.
“The picture came out in two theaters right around Christmas (in 2000),” he said with a chuckle. “Just as we turned the picture in, the president of Disney who signed the picture stepped down, and the people who were coming in didn’t have any idea what the picture was. After they first showed it to the new studio people, there was dead silence. Everybody had to consider what it was. I think they just had no idea what was going on.”
To the new regime’s credit, they didn’t torpedo the film they’d inherited, and it soon began to build a following by word of mouth.
“At some point in January,” Burnett recalled, “the record started selling like crazy, then the movie started picking up. The two things started ... there was an arc between the two things that was beneficial to both of them.”
It was unprecedented for an album consisting predominantly of songs that were 50, 60 or in some cases more than 100 years old to reach No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart. “O Brother,” however, spent two weeks there, and remained on the chart for nearly two years.
Santelli notes that “O Brother” came more as the culmination than the catalyst for a groundswell of interest in roots music evident in the 1990s. The decade saw an explosion of music festivals dedicated to country, folk, bluegrass, blues, jazz, Cajun, zydeco and other forms of traditional American music.
Nevertheless, the film and the album introduced millions of new listeners to the rootsy music of artists such as Alison Krauss and her band, Union Station, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, the Cox Family, John Hartford, the Fairfield Four and others that Burnett rounded up for the project.
An album celebrating traditional American culture may have served as a salve for many in the country who were looking for comfort and reassurance in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Elvis Costello said that when Ralph Stanley stood up on that pedestal in middle of the audience (at the Grammy Awards show in 2002) and sang ‘O Death,’ that was the truest American response to the 9/11 attacks,” Burnett said. “I thought that was an interesting observation, and I couldn’t say it was wrong.
“Certainly for me it was,” he said. “I do think there was (relevance) in all that history, all those songs, all those stories we’ve passed on and on over time.”
Burnett was involved in another left-field success more recently, when the film for which he was executive producer, “Crazy Heart,” snowballed from nearly being relegated to direct-to-cable release into an Academy Award winner. Burnett said a similar spirit was at the heart of both, in which participants signed on more out of affection for the material than for its marketplace potential.
“Listening to the original album again reminded me of what a beautiful spirit it always was,” he said. “You can feel the vibe all the way through.”