She never appeared onscreen, but Alison Krauss played one of the seductive sirens in the Coen brothers' 2000 country bumbler O Brother, Where Art Thou?. With Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris, she sings an a cappella version of "Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby," which Welch had written based on a single verse of a traditional mountain lullaby. Actresses lip-synced the vocals in the scene, but the trio's easy, luxuriant harmonies on this strange lullaby made the oafish heroes' temptation not just understandable but relatable. Who wouldn't want to hear more?
It's a clever scene and perhaps the most intriguing mix of Southern setting and Greek mythology in the movie. More crucially, however, it anointed Welch, Harris, and Krauss as the new queens of Americana. That didn't mean much when the film was released to theaters, but it certainly carried some power when the soundtrack became a head-scratching hit.
Produced by T Bone Burnett and featuring Krauss, Welch, and Harris alongside bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, Norman Blake, the Whites, and other artists new and old, the O Brother soundtrack sold millions for the then-fledgling Lost Highway label, eventually winning a Grammy for Album of the Year. No soundtrack had won that award since 1994, and no soundtrack has won since.
Has there ever been a greater mismatch between film and soundtrack? O Brother the movie is a string of cornpone clichés and inside jokes that presents a version of the Deep South that's so layered with references and ironies that it plays like a postmillennial Hee-Haw.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, O Brother the soundtrack is almost too earnest in its gentle update of old radio hits, church hymns, work-crew spirituals, Delta blues, and hillbilly laments. With its carefully curated tracklist and austere arrangements, the album emphasizes a lack of sophistication that for Burnett and many listeners elevates the music above modern-day pop fare. Yet old-time music is much more varied than this soundtrack would suggest, often conveying dark ambiguities, needling ironies, sharp satire, disgusting racism, and shocking smut.
But that more simplistic view of old-time music has prevailed in 2011, with Lost Highway now releasing a deluxe reissue of the soundtrack. Despite the unprecedented success of O Brother, the album never spawned a larger movement: Americana flourished but remained a niche market rather than a mainstream force. In fact, it's taken nearly a full decade for the ripples to crest into waves, but recently a new generation of musicians has begun deploying some of the same old sounds toward new aims.
This movement has been termed New Americana, and much of it can be very good: The Civil Wars evoke a taut sexual tension in their churchly harmonies, and the Low Anthem combine rootsy arrangements with ambitious production techniques and modern subject matter. But too many of their peers sound dull and unimaginative, as groups like Mumford & Sons and Seattle's the Head and the Heart exploit old-time as a shortcut for "authentic," in the process narrowing the emotional and musical possibilities of the genre.
Many of these young artists cite O Brother as a touchstone and artists like Welch, Harris, and Krauss as influences. All three continue to make some of the most vital music of their careers, but it's Krauss who has remained the most visible figure in Americana.
Following the success of Raising Sand, her 2007 Grammy-winning collaboration with Robert Plant, Krauss this year released her 14th album with her longtime backing band Union Station. Already, Paper Airplane is one of her best-selling albums — and also one of Krauss' best reviewed. She and Union Station have grown increasingly comfortable and confident together, which allows them to strike an immediately melancholy tone on the opening title track and sustain it through haunted laments and gentle bluegrass jams.
It's eloquently played and even more eloquently sung, as Krauss trades off lead vocals with mandolin player Dan Tyminski, whose roadworn twang enlivens "Dust Bowl Children" and "On the Outside Looking In." Yet the key to Union Station's sound isn't the contrast between these two vocalists, nor the technique they bring to their stringed instruments, but Krauss' clear, crystalline voice. In the 1980s, she signed with Rounder Records as a teenage fiddle prodigy, but over the years, her voice has become the group's signature sound, communicating strident worry and placid affirmation with equal ease.
If O Brother gave Krauss license to flaunt her bluegrass and country roots — to showcase that languid twang of her earliest material — she has since softened whatever hard edges her voice might have. It's tempting to view this development as an appeal to mainstream audiences, but, in fact, it has allowed her greater range to explore the styles and strains lumped into Americana: Paper Airplane covers American and British folk, blues, gospel, even elements of rock.
Bluegrass remains Union Station's foundation, but Krauss' voice allows the band to envision that style as a new strain of American pop music. In that regard, these new songs sound like the obvious progeny of O Brother, suggesting that these old-time sounds have as much to say today as they did 10 years ago — or 80 years ago.
Alison Krauss & Union Station,
with Jerry Douglas
Thursday, August 25th, 8 p.m.