“The Soggy Bottom Boys have been steeped in old-timey material. We’re silly with it.” —Ulysses Everett McGill, O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The gig was pitched to Dan Tyminski in 1999 like this: We want you to record an obscure, sad folk song for an odd film based on Homer’s The Odyssey set in the Deep South. It’s just a voiceover. You’re putting words in the mouth of an actor who will be wearing a bad beard and dancing like a chicken.
You can’t blame Tyminski for not expecting a career-defining highlight when producer T-Bone asked him to wrap his resonant voice around “Man of Constant Sorrow” for the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
Before the film was released, the most enthusiastic reaction to the news came from Tyminski’s then-wife. “I told her I was doing a movie voice-over and she was supportive. Then I told her that it would be George Clooney on the big screen but my voice coming out of his mouth. ‘Oh Dan, that’s my fantasy!’ she said. I couldn’t make up something like that,” Tyminski says.
Tyminski did get to meet Clooney, who played lead character Ulysses Everett McGill. “We were on the set in Mississippi to play the backup band onstage when the Soggy Bottom Boys come out. Originally, he was supposed to sing it but George told me: ‘I’ll act. You sing.’”
In the film, “Man of Constant Sorrow” is a huge hit for the Soggy Bottom Boys. The song became a phenomenon, played on radio stations almost regardless of musical format. In real life, the song rose to No. 35 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart and sold over a million copies in the U.S. It earned Song of the Year, kudos in the bluegrass music world and won a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration in 2002. Country music embraced these pre-bluegrass tunes far removed from the modern Nashville sound.
The song and the soundtrack reintroduced America to bluegrass and old-timey music and to stellar musicians like Norman Blake, Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch.
“We never expected that to happen. It was amazing to watch our audience change almost overnight,” Tyminski says. “There were people coming to shows that were fans of rock, jazz and everything else.”
“Man of Constant Sorrow” has managed to connect with several generations of young listeners. “It really strikes a chord with them. The melody repeats over and over — it’s like 60 times. They groove to it. It’s almost hypnotic and someone always does the dance,” he says.
“The dance” would be the silly, chicken wing-flapping choreography the Soggy Bottom Boys (and Gov. Pappy, played by Charles Durning) do onstage in the film.
Over the past two decades, the song has become a constant on Tyminski’s setlist, regardless of whether he is playing with Alison Krauss and Union Station, as a solo act or with his band.
“There are some people at every show who come just to hear the song. Sometimes I have to go ahead and do it early because so many people are shouting for it,” Tyminski says.
If you listen to the words, “Man of Constant Sorrow” is not exactly a happy anthem. “It’s really a pretty depressing song. It’s not singing about occasional distress. It is constant sorrow,” Tyminski says with a chuckle. The soundtrack’s other equally upbeat “hits” include Ralph Stanley’s dirge-like “Oh Death” plus “I’m in the Jailhouse Now,” “Angel Band” and “I Am Weary.” A little balance is provided by “Keep on the Sunny Side.”
Twenty years later, the song, the soundtrack and the film are still a touchstone. There was only one little problem. “Man of Constant Sorrow” was a huge hit for a band that didn’t exist. The Soggy Bottom Boys have been the Spinal Tap of acoustic music.
“It didn’t dawn on us for a long time to perform as the Soggy Bottom Boys,” Tyminski says. The original group of musicians who recorded the song are among the genre’s most celebrated pickers but they’ve only performed together a handful of times.
That’s what makes the Soggy Bottom Boys “reunion” July 26 at RockyGrass so highly anticipated by fans and the musicians.
“When they asked us to do a set as the Soggy Bottom Boys we had to do it because it’s just too much fun,” he says.
The Boys are Tyminski, banjoist Ron Block and bassist Barry Bales — the core of Alison Krauss’ Union Station band — plus stellar mandolinist Mike Compton, guitarist Pat Enright and fiddler Stuart Duncan, who are the heart of the celebrated Nashville Bluegrass Band.
“We do as many songs as we can do from the soundtrack, and we do songs that are of the spirit of those songs. We are just steeped in old-timey-ness,” he says, paraphrasing George Clooney’s character.
Who would have thought that a few minutes of film back at the turn of the millennium would keep resonating? “It’s been covered by everyone. I’ve done it with rock bands, country bands, blues bands and a Celtic band with pipes and whistles,” Tyminski says.
It’s appropriate given the fact that “Man of Constant Sorrow” in one of its hundreds of versions goes back at least 200 years. You can find versions and variations of the song recorded by the Stanley Brothers, Bob Dylan, Ginger Baker, Blitzen Trapper, Gangstagrass and Miley Cyrus, along with multiple variations of “Girl of Constant Sorrow” and “Woman of Constant Sorrow.”
Despite 20 years of “Sorrow,” Tyminski says it never gets old. “It’s exciting when you see people’s reaction when we start playing it. There’s nothing like it,” he says.
Portions of the sold-out Rockygrass Festival July 26-28 in Lyons will air live on KGNU (88.5 FM, 1390 AM, kgnu.org).
ON THE BILL: Soggy Bottom Boys — 47th Annual RockyGrass Festival. Friday, July 26, Planet Bluegrass, 500 W. Main St., Lyons, bluegrass.com