O Brother, now what for country music?

Jeffrey B. Remz, May 2002

The success of the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack cannot be denied. After all, since its release in December 2000, the soundtrack with folks like Alison Krauss and Ralph Stanley supplying the music to the well-received Coen Brothers film has amassed sales of about 5 million copies.

The soundtrack topped the Billboard country album charts for weeks and at one point was the best selling album in the country, any genre.

Not to mention five Grammys including best album for any category and a very well received Down From the Mountain Tour in late January and early February, which was so successful that it's going to be reprised starting in late June in an expanded version.

Despite all outward appearances of success, however, there generally has been one place that you're unlikely to hear the "O Brother" soundtrack to any significant degree - country radio.

In a period where country music - like most genres - has seen a sales slide, will the "O Brother" music serve as a wake-up call and be the harbinger of a shift in country music?

According to a number of radio station, retail and record company leaders interviewed, it is not at all clear that country radio will respond or change.

But one area that clearly has benefitted has been bluegrass music, the music most closely associated with the soundtrack, which in reality includes a combination of bluegrass and a close cousin in Old Time music.

The song that attracted most of the attention from the soundtrack was "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" by the Soggy Bottom Boys. The song was released to country radio three times as a single but never did that well.

Why depends on who you talk with.

"They tried it initially. then they did it after the CMAs, and then they did it after the Grammys," says Ken Irwin, one of the heads of Rounder Records, which helped promote the "O Brother" album. "It didn't really have any impact at all. It's a tough thing."

"A lot of people still subscribe to the lowest common denominator approach to radio - what can we safely play that people won't press the button and turn the station," says Irwin.

Jon Kerlikowske, general manager of the Tower Records Nashville store, said radio stations in secondary markets are "definitely playing it, especially those that have Americana formats. In that regard, sure."

But the secondary, smaller markets are not those reporting their airplay to the Billboards of the world, who help make the charts, which could determine the success of the album.

Dave Kelly, programmer for WKDF, Music City 103 in Nashville and formerly with rival WSIX, says, "In order for something to have success on the charts, you have to have unanimity between radio stations. The stations that already have had success for it have already played it. You have to have 155 radio stations (playing it) at the same time."

"I think that it's proving that there are guys who may have missed the boat," says Kelly. "If you don't reach critical mass, then it's not going to go up the chart."

Paul Allen, the outgoing head of Country Radio Broadcasters, a national group of country radio stations, says, "It doesn't test as well as a heavily rotated piece of music, but many country stations, in fact, most country stations, acknowledge the important of that particular song and in the music marketplace."

Allen says it his understanding that consultants - the folks who advise radio stations what to play - said DJs should announce it's from the soundtrack and a little bit about it instead of including it as part of 12 songs ina row "where it would tend to stand out," say Allen.

And Allen, too, seems to acknowledge radio missed the boat on this album.

"The general nature of programmers as we approach the middle of 2002 is to err on the conservative side as opposed to erring in a way that would turn off the listener base. I realizes an album that sold 5 million units is pretty popular, and who are you turning off, but if you listen to the general sound of a radio station, it's far more conservative today than five, six, seven eight years ago. It's the nature of consolidation."

Kerlikowske says, "Nothing has had anything affect on radio itself in three or four years. Radio (play)lists are getting tighter and tighter, and something like this isn't going to break it. Not to mainstream (radio). You're not going to listen to (Nashville's) WSIX at 2 p.m. and hear a cut off of 'O Brother'."

Larry Daniels of Daniels Country Radio Resources of Tempe, Ariz., a radio station consultant, lamented the ' conservatism of radio stations. Daniels, who advises seven stations on what songs to play says it is "kind of sad in a way because one of the things that make stations more interesting is playing different types of country."

The nature of the radio business in recent years has been consolidation with the bottom line often being the bottom line.

Meaning that the worst thing a radio station could do would be to turn off listeners and have them reach for the change button.

"What you want to do is build an audience," Allen says. "What many programmers do in country is test the music that they plan to put on the air. They only air music that tests favorably."

The key is "to not explain why you're putting something on, but fit the general (sound) that the listener has come to expect."

WKDF's Kelly says, "My job is to generate ratings, not album sales. If something is generating album sales, it's something I've got to look at."

"There could be records that could be successful for the record labels that don't work for mainstream radio," Kelly says. "We are two completely different industries that work in tandem for the exposure of artists, but sometimes don't (meet)."

Of course, radio stations also will say they are playing a particular song because it does sound different. A recent example of that was Mark McGuinn's hit out of left field last year "Mrs. Steven Rudy."

The future

In the wake of "O Brother," what lies ahead? Country music has been waiting for something to jump start sales for several years. Once the line dance fad went bust about five years ago and the hat acts faded, country also saw its sales decrease. The number of radio stations dipped from about 2,300 to 2,100, according to Allen, but is remaining steady.

Could "O Brother" bust the doors open to a different kind of country hitting the airwaves?

Not a likely scenario.

"I don't see much effect," says Bob Duchesne, operations manager for Cumulus Broadcasting in Bangor, Maine, who oversees programming and marketing for five stations in that area.

"I've been in country music long enough to have been through the pop and traditional swings. So, I suppose one big question is would 'O Brother' be the engine that gets country back on a more traditional style the way that Ricky Skaggs did in the '80s and Randy Travis did in '86. I think the answer is probably no."

"I think an awful lot of people who are into roots music as anything else that got into the album," Duchesne says. "As far as the hardcore country listeners, I don't think it affected their taste in country music very much."

"I think it appealed to a very broad group of people only part of which are country's target for a group," he says.

In fact, the label that released the album, Lost Highway, also the home of folks like Lucinda Williams and Kim Richey, is not gearing itself to country radio at all. In fact, they seem to be going more after the NPR crowd - in other words, a bit older, more highly educated and better off than the typical country crowd.

Country radio tends to focus on young female adults.

Another factor pointed out by Duchesne is that labels have grown increasingly constricted. Some folded or were taken over by others (Warner, for example, took over Giant and Atlantic).

The result has been fewer artists on labels and record labels trying for the hit to get their act on the airwaves.

"I think some of the signs to watch for are how are some of the more traditional (acts do)?" says Duchesne. "Does Willie Nelson do well with 'Medocino County Line'? Does Brad Paisley become huge? Kevin Denney? Will one of those traditional artists break through and become big?"

"It could show a swing coming.," Duchense said. "Because sooner or later, it does swing. This swing seems to be taking a long time to get here."

Rounder's Irwin says he forsees some positives coming out of "O Brother," although not necessarily on regular radio station playlists. "We're seeing me of the syndicated bluegrass radio shows being picked up by country stations," he says. "These are country stations that wouldn't be playing 'O Brother,' but have picked up some of the syndicated shows."

And bluegrass could also benefit from Country Music Television, according to Irwin.

A few months ago, CMT had "Bluegrass Week," where they focused on bluegrass. "They got over 7 million viewers, and they were just shocked," says Irwin. "They also let it be known that they would be open to having some bluegrass videos."

"They'd already been doing Dolly and Patty Loveless and Alison (Krauss) and Nickel Creek. They were interested in seeing some other people who had been doing bluegrass full time rather than touching it.

The beneficiaries of the soundtrack seem to be folks like Ralph Stanley, who in his mid-70's, may be attracting a wider audience than ever.

Miles of Music, a Los Angeles area mail order business generally for very hard-to-find independent country and roots music releases, saw sales of Stanley go "up significantly," according to Jeff Weiss, an owner of Miles of Music. "His titles are selling more broadly for us."

"Emmylou's a constant seller for us. Alison. Certainly Dan Tyminski (the voice of George Clooney in the movie's songs) benefitted from us. It didn't seem to resonate with people until they bought the CD. Then sales picked up for it."

MOM sold one or two copies of Tyminski's Doobie Shea solo debut before the soundtrack took off and about 50 after that.

Tower's Kerlikowske says, "Where 'O Brother' has opened things up, is people who have not been exposed before, especially younger people. It's amazing how many younger people are coming in and listening. The biggest benefactor even though they weren't on the record was Nickel Creek. For Chris Thile (a member of the youthful trio that has done boffo numbers), the two previous to that, it didn't do much of anything. But this one is a smash."

But he discounted the effect of "O Brother" on country.

"Unfortunately, I think it's going to be a one-hit wonder, but you never know," says Kerlikowske. "It's going to have something else to drive it other than the music itself for people to make a connection. Whether it's another movie or a documentary."

"It's such a phenomenon. It's like Michael Jackson trying to do 'Thriller' again. It's not going to happen."

"I don't think anyone has yet to figured out how to grab onto the coattail and make something from it. They've done 'Down From the Mountain' and 'O Sister,' (a Rounder compilation of female bluegrassers that has sold 70,000 copies) but I don't think they've figured out yet how to capitalize on this phenomenon."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com