Music: Arena Bluegrass?

Current tour strives to paint Bluegrass as more than just a novelty

Jul 4, 2002 at 2:06 pm
Del McCoury (center) and his band

"This O Brother album has done so well, I've stopped building ceilings altogether," laughs Bluegrass singer Dan Tyminski. Even over the phone, he makes a distinctly cheerful, easygoing impression for a man whose voice will forever be associated with the doleful "I'm A Man Of Constant Sorrow."

"If someone says they think it's going to sell 30 million records, I probably wouldn't doubt it. I'd say well, let's see. No one dreamed that a record of that nature could do what it's done — not even if you had Elvis back, singing Bluegrass. So I don't think anything is impossible any more."

Well, duh, you might think. After all, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? phenomenon is achieving stratospheric proportions. A year-and-a-half after the soundtrack album's release, it has sold over six million copies, has spent time on the charts as the best-selling CD in any genre, and shows no sign of fading from view.

It's been handed a bushel of awards, too, not only by the Country music industry (most recently in May, when it was named the Academy of Country Music's Album of the Year), but most famously at the Grammy awards, where it took the same title for the record industry as a whole — and a slew of other honors to go with it.

Even so, there's a special twist to the bemusement Tyminski and the rest of the current "Down From The Mountain" tour cast have been feeling. For beyond the fact that there are very few in any genre who sell that many albums, this is, as he says, music "of that nature" — Bluegrass, old-time Country, rootsy Gospel and a bit of Delta Blues, too. Music that's rooted in the 1930s and even earlier. Music that's hard to find if you don't know where to look. Music banished from mainstream radio playlists because, in the words of way too many DJs, program directors and consultants, "Nobody wants to hear that old, whiny shit."

So in addition to enjoying this unexpected surge of attention for themselves, the musicians coming to the US Bank Arena on Tuesday for the second go-round of their tour (they got no closer than Lexington the first time out) are mostly inclined to see themselves as representatives of the music and the communities which have sustained it.

"The thing we want to do now is to turn people on not just to 'You Are My Sunshine,' but to what came after that, too," says Jerry Douglas, dobro innovator, Soggy Bottom Boy and featured member of Alison Krauss & Union Station. And he doesn't mean Rock & Roll.

Indeed, the goal of moving the music from exotic novelty status on the fringes of the mainstream to a permanent place closer to its center has been integral to "Down From The Mountain" since long before it was conceived of as a tour. The name was originally assigned to a special concert by the O Brother artists held at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium in May of 2000 — months before the movie and CD were released. At the Ryman show, filmed for later theatrical release (the soundtrack CD was another winner at this year's Grammys), performers matched their contributions to the film with ones from their own repertoire.

"That was such a special night, it was really magical," recalls Denise Stiff, Alison Krauss's manager and a key player in putting both the soundtrack and the concerts together. "When we first started talking about taking the show on the road last spring, I didn't want to sully its memory.

"But what I found beautiful in seeing the shows on the first tour was the way they evolved, and how much respect the music was given. There was a wonderful sense of community, and everyone involved was clearly so excited that they were able to do the music they love and that audiences appreciated it. They didn't have to change it to make it more palatable."

Tyminski adds, "I've been explaining to people that, though the summer tour won't have exactly the same lineup that you see when you pick up the soundtrack, I think that all the people there will be performing music that is still pretty much in the spirit of what that album stands for. It's music that leans heavily on its roots."

What that means in practice is a lineup offering a more complete picture of "what came after." Modern Country star Patty Loveless, who released the luminous Bluegrass and acoustic Country set Mountain Soul last year, has one foot in the mountain music of her youth and the other in the glitzy world of Country radio and videos. Adding Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder and the Del McCoury Band both broadens the scope of the show and acknowledges the key role both acts have played in bringing Bluegrass to wider audiences even before O Brother opened.

Not surprisingly, McCoury — whose progress through the Cincinnati scene, from Bluegrass festivals in the rural hinterlands to the Southgate House, the 20th Century and now the US Bank Arena — puts his finger on the reasons for the growing interest.

"It was seven or eight years ago that I could start seeing this starting to change," the genial bandleader says. "We'd be booked into Rock clubs, and I thought what in the world is happening here? There'd be a full house, kids standing right up against the stage and as far back as you could see, and I got to thinking, I believe they think that this music is real. It's not synthesized. And I think that's the reason they like it, and I think that's why they want to play it. They think, 'This is a challenge.' It's so different."

"Bluegrass has come a long way, you know. When Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys started hitting it back in the '40s, that was ... bang! That was a modern version of the string band stuff, and you can't beat that even today."

THE DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN TOUR, featuring Alison Krauss & Union Station, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Ralph Stanley, The Whites, Del McCoury, Norman and Nancy Blake, Chris Thomas King, The Peasall Sisters, and The Nashville Bluegrass Band, hits Cincinnati's US Bank Arena (formerly the Firstar Center) on Tuesday.