If the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack had merely gone platinum, it would have been the unlikeliest million-seller of all time. But, having actually sold a staggering 8 million copies, the salute to vintage hillbilly music represented something more like a tear in the space-time continuum — an inexplicable trip to an alternate America where, for a few wonderful minutes, the Stanley Brothers were even bigger than the Backstreet Boys.
If you’re feeling nostalgic for the 1930s nostalgia of the early 2000s, consider yourself in luck. The “O Brother” phenomenon is revisited in a new 10th anniversary deluxe edition, which adds a bonus disc of 14 tracks produced or collected by T Bone Burnett that didn’t make the original cut.
It’s a chance to travel back to that brief, shining moment when traditional American music ruled awards shows as well as sales charts and vindicated roots-music devotees felt like men of constant ebullience.
For the 8 million owners of the standard edition, an upgrade to this two-disc version isn’t mandatory. Eight of the 14 tracks on the bonus disc are alternate versions of tunes from the first album, performed by other artists. Although Burnett doesn’t say so in the extensive liner notes, presumably he wanted to give the Coen brothers the choice of different versions of most of the songs.
There’s even an alternate 1959 chain-gang recording that must have been in contention for the slot ultimately given over to “Po’ Lazarus,” the original album’s opener. But the overlaps don’t add a tremendous amount to the experience.
Do you really need to hear the Cox Family sing “In the Highways” instead of the Peasall sisters? Or the Peasall sisters perform “Angel Band” instead of the Stanley bros? Possibly not.
What the new version is really good for is meditating anew on just how weird and wonderful it was that “O Brother” became the coffee-table album of its era, as it faithfully represented traditional genres whose releases are considered smashes if sales crack 20K.
Reasons to return to the Grammys’ 2002 Album of the Year include: Alison Krauss’ angelic “Down to the River to Pray,” a forgotten gospel standard that has since been revived by evangelical congregations for river baptisms; “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby,” an African-American lullaby wryly reworked by Burnett to be a sensual come-on for sirens Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and Krauss; and “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” sung by Dan Tyminski (and lip-synched by Clooney), with a call-and-response that makes communal comedy out of ultimate lonesomeness.
And, of course, there's “O Death,” wailed by Ralph Stanley as if he really were on death’s door, even though the bluegrass progenitor has lived and thrived another 10 years as a virtual rock star.
The Coen brothers’ film found a kind of cosmic slapstick in the refusal of George Clooney’s atheist character to acknowledge the serendipity and providence around him. Along those same lines, the “O Brother” soundtrack was — and is — a bona fide miracle in our soggy-bottomed midst.