There's a scene in the Coen Brothers' movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? in which a promoter by the name of Mr. French drops in at a rural Mississippi radio station to see if he can track down the Soggy Bottom Boys, whose song, "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," has become a runaway hit. "That record is just going through the goddamn roof!" he tells the blind man who runs the station. "They're playing it as far away as Mobile!"
Call it a case of life imitating art, but "Man of Constant Sorrow" and, in particular, the O Brother soundtrack album on which the song appears, have indeed gone through the goddamn roof. The album, which contains traditional country, blues and gospel songs by such artists as Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Norman Blake and Alison Krauss, was released just over a year ago, and it's a bona fide phenomenon, having sold more than four million copies. In January, O Brother managed to reclaim the number-one spot on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart, dethroning Garth Brooks's Scarecrow in the process. Last November, the soundtrack was named Album of the Year at the mostly mainstream Country Music Association awards, held at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry House. The evening's biggest surprise, however, came when "Man of Constant Sorrow," the movie's signature song, beat out recordings by Brooks and Dunn, Sara Evans, Lonestar and Diamond Rio to win Single of the Year. Not bad for a record that was all but ignored by country-radio stations.
No one was more stunned that night than Dan Tyminski, the voice behind "Man of Constant Sorrow."
"It was something that I never in a million years could have imagined," the affable Tyminski says from his home in Ferrum, Virginia, just south of Roanoke (and 400 miles from Nashville). "I knew that the album was very popular, and somewhere in the back of my mind, I guess it kind of made sense that it had a chance for album of the year. But as far as single of the year goes, I never, ever, ever thought it had a chance. So when they said, 'Man of Constant Sorrow,' my heart just dropped. And it took until it bounced back up to where it's supposed to be before I could really believe that's what they said. It was very much an out-of-body experience."
Although the 34-year-old Tyminski is well known in bluegrass circles -- he plays guitar and sings with Alison Krauss and Union Station -- he certainly has picked up a few new fans as a result of O Brother's success, even if some may recognize his voice more than his face. That's because in the movie, George Clooney, as the charming (and well-coiffed) escaped convict Ulysses Everett McGill, appears rather convincingly to be singing "Man of Constant Sorrow," an old Appalachian folk song popularized by the Stanley Brothers in the 1950s. In fact, Clooney is lip-synching to Tyminski's soulful baritone voice, a situation that amused the singer's wife to no end. "Before we started recording the song," he explains, "I told her that I would be doing a voiceover, and she asked me what that was. I told her, 'When you go to the movie and you see George Clooney singing, you'll actually be hearing my voice.' And she said, 'Dan, that's my fantasy!'" When Tyminski stood at the podium at the CMA awards, he stammered, "I suppose I should thank, uh, George Clooney, for one."
There's little doubt that many people who saw the movie went right out and bought the soundtrack. But it's not as if O Brother, the film, was a blockbuster, even if the critics loved it. In fact, it was a modest hit for the Coens. Domestically, it earned about $45.5 million, making it the 55th-top-grossing movie of 2000. (Even Dude, Where's My Car? did better at the box office.) The music, on the other hand, has turned out to be much more enduring.
In May 2000, months before the movie was released, most of the O Brother musicians, Tyminski included, gathered at Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium for a sold-out concert, which was filmed by noted documentarians D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back, The War Room) and Chris Hegedus. Although released theatrically, Down From the Mountain never made it to Denver, but it is available on video and DVD. (And just as with O Brother, there's even a soundtrack album.) Last August, the musicians performed a similar concert at venerable Carnegie Hall in New York City. Now comes the road show: a seventeen-city tour, with a sold-out February 11 stop in Denver at the Paramount Theatre. (A summer tour is already in the works.) No doubt one of the highlights of the show will be when Tyminski and the "Soggy Mountain Boys" -- members of the Nashville Bluegrass Band -- break into "Man of Constant Sorrow."
The Down From the Mountain tour ends on February 20, just in time for Tyminski to head out to Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards, where the O Brother soundtrack is nominated for both Album of the Year and Best Compilation Soundtrack, the Down From the Mountain soundtrack is up for Best Traditional Folk Album, and "The Lucky One," a song off of Alison Krauss and Union Station's most recent album, New Favorite, is in the running for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal. In addition, T-Bone Burnett, who produced both the O Brother and Down From the Mountain soundtracks, is up for Producer of the Year, and Ralph Stanley, now 74 years old, is nominated for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for his scary song "O Death."
"Oh, gosh, I'm looking forward to it," Tyminski says of the Grammys, sounding like a kid on his way to the candy shop. "It's so much fun just to see all the people. It's a great time."
Tyminski, who lives in Ferrum with his wife and three children, is clearly enjoying his moment in the spotlight, such as it is. "It's not something I ever set out for, or something I ever really planned on," he says, "so it's definitely an unusual experience. It's different. But it's been nice, and everyone's been so supportive. It would be impossible not to enjoy it."
For years, Tyminski has felt lucky just to be able to earn a living playing bluegrass music, not an easy feat. He grew up in Rutland, Vermont, the son of bluegrass-crazed parents who dragged him and his older brother, Stan, to festivals and concerts throughout New England. When he was just fourteen, he and his brother formed a band, Green Mountain Bluegrass, and they toured up and down the East Coast.
"There just wasn't a big market for us," Tyminski says, "so we struggled, and after five years, we finally said, 'You know what? It's too hard to make a living.'" Fortunately for Dan, he was asked to join the Lonesome River Band, a highly regarded bluegrass ensemble based in Ferrum. Tyminski, who had played banjo with Green Mountain Bluegrass, switched to mandolin, but it was his voice that eventually caught the attention of Krauss. When she first asked him to join Union Station, Tyminski turned her down, but he eventually changed his mind. (And he gladly changed instruments one more time, to guitar.)
"I found my calling eight years ago when I joined Alison Krauss and Union Station," Tyminski says now. "I couldn't imagine ever wanting to do anything but what I do with them." What he does, in addition to playing solid rhythm guitar on his 1946 Martin D-28, is add a striking vocal counterpoint to Krauss's delicate soprano. (Listen to the way they harmonize on "Crazy Faith," from New Favorite.) And though he sings the occasional lead vocal on Krauss's albums, Tyminski the frontman is best heard on his solo album, Carry Me Across the Mountain, released in 2000 on Virginia's Doobie Shea Records. On it, he moves easily from traditional to progressive bluegrass styles, with help along the way from Krauss and their Union Station bandmates: guitarist Ron Block, dobro master Jerry Douglas, bassist Barry Bales and former Station mandolinist Adam Steffey. He also does a fine duet with his brother, Stan -- an old Jimmie ("You Are My Sunshine") Davis song titled "I Dreamed of an Old Love Affair."
"He's the one with the voice," Tyminski says of his brother. "And he still has it."
Tyminski acknowledges that were he seeking out a mainstream solo career, he couldn't ask for a better launching platform than the one he has now, given his current high profile. But that's not what he's looking for. He's a bluegrass man to the core, and he's not about to give up one of the best gigs around.
"You know," he says, "I am so spoiled. That's what it comes down to: I'm just a spoiled man. I definitely feel in my heart that I was created to play music. That was burned into me for as long as I can remember. And that I get to do that and make a living at it is why I feel like such a blessed man."
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