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Music: O Brother’s Wise Father

5 minute read
Josh Tyrangiel

The other day, a promotions executive at a major record label was bemoaning the state of his business. The Internet, bootlegging, CD burners–they were all killing him, he said. Then he turned his frustration on a new scourge. “I would really like to know,” he asked, “who are the 6 million people buying O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

The music business is full of green souls, but envy often turns to mystified rage when the subject is the O Brother sound track. While the industry collapses, an American-roots album from a moderately successful film that received almost no commercial-radio play still lurks in the upper reaches of the Billboard Top 200, now 80 weeks after its release. “A lot of people think we’re a fluke,” says T Bone Burnett, the producer and creative force behind O Brother. “But I think we’ve identified a market.”

Soon the world will find out if Burnett is right. In partnership with the Coen brothers, T Bone (real name: Joseph Henry) releases this week the first products from DMZ Records, a boutique label that plans to ignore every bit of conventional record-industry sales wisdom. DMZ’s first two releases, both Burnett productions, are the Louisiana-laden sound track to Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and a new album–the 186th–from mountain-soul legend and O Brother featured player Ralph Stanley. There will be no large promotional budgets, no appeals to commercial radio. Burnett is convinced these records will sell: “People are much more sophisticated and cultured than they’ve ever been. I believe that if something’s good, people will like it.”

Burnett, 54, has always been a music-industry anachronism. Raised in Fort Worth, Texas, he arrived on the pop scene in 1975 as the guitarist in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, the backup musician who literally (at 6 ft. 7 in.) overshadowed a legend. In the ’80s he became the lone Los Angeles songwriter to favor salvation over sin on a series of tough, moralistic solo albums. (Burnett and his wife, singer Sam Phillips, are devout Christians.) Burnett segued into producing and, while helming more than 40 albums for such artists as Elvis Costello and Counting Crows, became a beloved figure among musicians. When O Brother beat out U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind for Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards this past February, Bono said, “At least America will finally find out who T Bone Burnett is.”

Burnett doesn’t care much for notoriety. He has an obstreperous side that makes him wary of fame but suits his current mission as the retrograde rebel of the music business perfectly. If the industry ticks, Burnett tacks. Take commercial radio, presumed to be the business’s main artery to consumers. Most contemporary songs are market tested–not to determine whether consumers like them but to see if they turn the radio up or down; commercial-radio stations want their listeners to do neither, fearing that any reach for the dial could result in a station change. Inevitably, the edges come off any song that aspires to reach a mass audience. “If radio had started to play Man of Constant Sorrow”–O Brother’s most accessible tune–“they would have turned it into Achy Breaky Heart. I thank them for not playing it,” says Burnett. “It would have been a novelty joke. We don’t have to pander to sell a lot of records.”

That’s not quite true. Burnett has no problem cozying up to National Public Radio. NPR’s member stations make up 6% of all American radio outlets (by contrast, Top 40 stations are just 4%), but major labels consider their audiences too finicky and too old to be ideal consumers. Burnett seduced NPR with O Brother’s old-time sounds, and the member stations promoted the album feverishly, transforming it into the musical totem of a mature counterculture. Burnett visited the NPR national convention in May and brought along Ralph Stanley; NPR stations are now playing Stanley’s new album.

Major labels could copy DMZ’s strategy, but Burnett doubts they will. “They’re supertankers,” he says. “We’re like a little speedboat.” If the majors do invade his turf, they still have to find the right music for the market, and that’s where Burnett has his greatest advantage. “After all these years of watching the culture,” says Burnett, “I just need to catch a glimpse of something. I know when something’s good.”

He also knows how to make something good. For the Ya-Ya sound track, Burnett spent months going through his incalculable record collection (“Collections,” he says. “They’re spread all over Los Angeles in storage spaces, houses, studios …”) and doing research to come up with an entertaining Louisiana-mix tape. In addition to tracks by Mahalia Jackson, Slim Harpo and Blind Uncle Gaspard (you don’t know Blind Uncle Gaspard?), Burnett found Mark and Ann Savoy, Cajun music’s performing keepers of the flame, and recorded a new string arrangement for Richard and Linda Thompson’s Dimming of the Day. Then, because he could, he got Bob Dylan and Lauryn Hill to throw in some new material too.

For music-loving adults annoyed by radio and bewildered by MP3s, Burnett provides taste and authenticity–a mass product that feels tailored to the individual. Never mind that DMZ has a distribution deal with Sony. “We want to remind people,” says Burnett, “that there’s a person choosing this music.”

There are rap and contemporary-rock albums in DMZ’s future, but succeeding with throwback fare clearly appeals to Burnett’s contrarian nature. While the industry churns out aborted Next Big Things, Burnett will dig through his collections for an upcoming Cold Mountain sound track and put the finishing touches on a Tony Bennett album. “I don’t need to build a media empire,” says Burnett. “I just want to put out some good records for a while.”

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