In the 2000 Coen Brothers film “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” a band of bumbling fugitives called the Soggy Bottom Boys accidentally scores a smash hit with the song “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
In a case of life imitating art, the song – thought to be first recorded in 1913 by a blind fiddle player in Kentucky and then kept alive through interpretations by the Stanley Brothers in the 1950s and Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Judy Collins in the ’60s – leaped off the silver screen and onto real-life airwaves. The “O Brother” version caught fire like none of its predecessors had, climbing the charts and eventually winning a Grammy and awards from the Country Music Association and International Bluegrass Music Association.
In real life, though, it wasn’t George Clooney, playing the character Ulysses Everett McGill, belting out the words:
“I am a man of constant sorrow
I’ve seen trouble all my days”
The voice moviegoers heard was that of Dan Tyminski, a songwriter and longtime guitarist, mandolin player and vocalist with Alison Krauss & Union Station. And the real Soggy Bottom Boys, the ones who played the song for the film, weren’t escaped cons but rather some of bluegrass’ most talented players.
The movie long ago exited theaters, but there’s just something about “O Brother” and what its T Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack did for bluegrass music that still resonates today. Which is why the Soggy Bottom Boys, on rare occasions when busy schedules allow, emerge from film history and take a real-life stage, playing songs from the movie and beyond.
They’ll play at 4:15 p.m. Friday at Red Hat Amphitheater in the original lineup – “there has ever and only been one,” said Tyminski as he listed them: Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Union Station bandmates Ron Block on banjo and Barry Bales on bass, Mike Compton on mandolin, Pat Enright on guitar and vocals, and Jerry Douglas on Dobro. (Harley Allen, who sang harmonies on “Man of Constant Sorrow” for the film, died in 2011). “Together we are, indeed, the Soggy Bottom Boys.”
You can bet that “Man of Constant Sorrow” will be in the setlist, but the band will also feature songs from the 1930s era that provided the movie’s setting.
We play old-time, traditional music of that era and that style, in the spirit of how it was done in the movie. It’s a fun thing to get to play with that combination of people. I believe it’s special.
Dan Tyminski, of the Soggy Bottom Boys
“We play old-time, traditional music of that era and that style, in the spirit of how it was done in the movie,” Tyminski said. “It’s a fun thing to get to play with that combination of people. I believe it’s special.”
The soundtrack – featuring Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley, Gillian Welch, Norman Blake and others – put plaintive bluegrass sounds in the spotlight,. The face of George Clooney really getting into a song (as it was sung by Tyminski) got the attention of a whole new generation, and suddenly roots music seemed kind of cool.
One myth that has lingered after all these years is the notion that Tyminski was called in to sing because Clooney wasn’t up to the job.
“That just wasn’t the case,” Tyminski said. “I got to record it with him, and he sounded fine to me singing that song.” But as production continued and time grew short, the filmmakers decided to go with a version that Tyminski and the band had already recorded. Clooney told Tyminski: “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll act, you sing.”
“At the time,” Tyminski recalled, “I was honestly very disappointed. I was like, ‘Man, that was my chance to get to record with Clooney.’ I thought that was a bigger deal than anything. And then, as it turns out, that song ended up being a life-changer for me. You can’t plan stuff like that, but you can certainly enjoy watching it unfold.”
Tyminski was swept up on another wild ride more recently when he got a call out of the blue from Swedish electronic musician Avicii asking him to collaborate on a song. “Hey Brother,” a tender, driving song about the bonds of family, featured Tyminski’s vocals and went to the top of the dance charts worldwide after its release in 2013.
Tyminski hadn’t heard of Avicii, so he texted his teenage daughter for an expert opinion.
“I said, ‘Well, he wants me to do a song on his next record, and I was wondering who he was.’ And she texted me back one word: ‘Bull----.’” Then she picked up the phone and told him he had to do it, and he was in. An EDM-tinged song was never something he set out to do, but sometimes, as Tyminski must know better than just about anyone else, life takes an unexpected turn. And unexpected is right where he wants to be.
“Though I have made my entire living playing bluegrass music, I like all types of music,” Tyminski said. “If I do anything else, I would like to think that it’s going to be different than whatever’s out there right now, whether that’s bluegrass music, electronic dance music, country music. Whatever it is I just want it to kind of live in its own little real estate and be unique.”
Certainly the Soggy Bottom Boys fits that bill: a pretend band that had a real impact on bluegrass music, a throwback to the 1930s that continues to resonate in 2016.
Stacy Chandler: email@example.com
What: The Soggy Bottom Boys – Dan Tyminski, Stuart Duncan, Ron Block, Barry Bales, Mike Compton, Pat Enright and Jerry Douglas – as part of Wide Open Bluegrass. Also features Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder and more.
When: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday. Soggy Bottom Boys at 4:15 p.m.
Where: Red Hat Amphitheater, Raleigh
Also: Dan Tyminski will co-host the IBMA Awards Show with Sierra Hull at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. See ibma.org for details.
Songs that stand out
“Man of Constant Sorrow” will bring down the house, of course, but listen for other traditional tunes that evoke the era of “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” “O Death” by the late Ralph Stanley, “In the Jailhouse Now” and “I’ll Fly Away” were favorites from the movie’s hit soundtrack.