Well, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is now 20 years old, and where is the state of bluegrass now? Has it influenced enough people over the years to take an interest in the format in the long run, or was it a fluke?
Since I was around and involved with the roots-music business 20 years ago as well as now, I think that I have a good perspective of what has happened. I was at an Americana Music Association conference in Nashville when there was initial fanfare about the film. Those of us there thought that it would have a small impact on the entertainment industry, primarily due to George Clooney starring in the film. The concert that would eventually become the Down From the Mountain documentary had just been performed a few months earlier. The film had some success, but not anything spectacular at the box office. However, I don’t think any of us would have guessed the soundtrack would become so popular.
We watched as for two to three years afterward, the recording industry was swamped with bluegrass and roots-music releases. Ralph Stanley got a Grammy for his vocal performance, which meant that people were re-discovering Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs recordings. Bluegrass artists such as Del McCoury and Ricky Skaggs were being highlighted on mainstream television programs. Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch became go-to references in the industry.
By 2005, it seemed that the spotlight had faded for the most part. Flavor-of-the-day fans moved on to the next musical craze. However, there was a strong, albeit small, contingent of fans that continued to listen and love bluegrass music. It wasn’t as powerful as, say, the grunge music fandom, but it did keep bluegrass within reach of curious parties.
From that point, we did see a gain in young musicians who took more than a passing interest in the format and strived to become successful. Krauss’ Union Station band became a supergroup in bluegrass, and kids looked up to them the same way aspiring young rock musicians would look up to My Chemical Romance, Green Day, or The White Stripes. I can still remember seeing an 11-year-old Sierra Hull playing mandolin like it was a natural extension of her body. And of course, Nickel Creek probably did more for young people to take an interest in acoustic music than any other band at the time
There were some great young bluegrass bands to come out during this time period. The Steep Canyon Rangers, The SteelDrivers, King Wilkie, Cherryholmes, and The Grascals are the more recognizable names. Then there was the swarm of acoustic bands that had a small foot in bluegrass but were much more experimental. These included The Punch Brothers, Crooked Still, Mumford & Sons, and Trampled by Turtles to name a few. During the past decade, comedian Steve Martin has taken a big interest in bluegrass music, particularly with the banjo’s influence. His solo music work and work with the Steep Canyon Rangers has pushed bluegrass back into the popular music interest for some short spurts. Add to that his annual award to banjo players along with his connections to late-night talk shows gets bluegrass some quick exposure.
Bluegrass has changed. While bands still perform standards (just as local rock bands still perform Chuck Berry, Beatles, and old Rolling Stones songs), but the young performers want to go further. Sierra Hull, Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle can still play those old-time fiddle songs, but they also want to have their own acoustic sound. Same with two of my favorite bands out now: Mile Twelve and Hawktail. What OBWAT has done is pigeonholed a lot of these young artists. Because there is not electric guitars or drums, the passing music listeners tend to list them as bluegrass.
So does that mean that bluegrass as a format has expanded out to where it is hardly recognizable? Has it gone the route that rock-n-roll led to just “rock” music? One thing that I do know is that there are a lot of young bluegrass players out there, both traditional and progressive, that were not even born when the film and soundtrack came out, yet use them as tools to learn about the format.
I leave you with some videos of young bluegrass performers. The band is the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys. They first appeared on the David Letterman show about 10 years ago, and the second being what they are like today.
Chew on it and comment.