- Since the early 1990s, a family of producers and artists with a
background in Nashville recording has somewhat haphazardly developed
an aesthetic which signifies acousticness, authenticity,
and hipness. These various musical strands and recording
practices reached their apex with the release of the film soundtrack,
O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a work whose particular approach
to recorded musical sound has become codified into what I refer to
as the O Brother aesthetic.
- As a secondary market, country music has historically
followed trends rather than set them.1
And so the commercial dominance of the O Brother soundtrack
has left many music makers from both sides of the great pop/country
divide, including a number of artists on the O Brother album
and related tours, in a sonic quandary. After these musicians have
spent entire careers trying to catch the last big thing
in the recording studios, this one-off soundtrack albuma momentary
diversion for most of the participantshas emerged as the next
big thing in pop music production. How this sonic aesthetic
was arrived at, and why so many of the releases by musicians who appear
on the soundtrack diverge from this aesthetic, is the subject of this
- The first bluegrass revival of the late 1950s was kick-started by
young musicians with little technological savvy. By the time of the
second revival in the early 70s, a generation of musicians had educated
themselves in the art of sound recording. The sonic aesthetics of
this younger generation of performers and audiences were as much informed
by the flowering of British art-rock as by any Lomax field recording.
Employing multitrack technology, musicians recorded in severe isolation
from one another, or even over-dubbed one part at a time. Individual
instruments were afforded their own microphone (or in many cases,
several microphones) as well as their own tracks on tape. Such isolation
offered a far greater degree of sonic clarity, but also required the
musicians and engineers to re-create a simulacrum of musical environment
and exchange (Toynbee 8993). Often, musicians
were not playing together in the same room, though the finished recordings
strove to sound like they had.2
- Throughout the 70s, Nashville recording engineers and producers
slowly mastered the practice of multitracked musical isolation. By
the early 1980s, many of the third generation revivalists had grown
tired of the sound of mainstream country imitation pop, and looked
elsewhere for sonic inspiration. They found it in
the phenomenal success of New Age, epitomized by the Windham Hill
label in albums such as Michael Hedgess Aerial Boundaries.3
Minimal instrumentation recorded with close-miked
clarity, then tastefully obscured with abundant digital
reverb, like a Vaseline smeared close-up of Greta Garbo, New Age music
became enormously popular with the emergent Yuppie social class, perhaps
the earliest indication of the superaltern4
alternative market now being targeted by the neo-new traditionalists.
Given the intense focus on the sound of individual instruments, it
is not surprising that a number of young bluegrass revivalists, such
as Mark OConnor and Jerry Douglas (with Strength in Numbers),
as well as other folk instrumentalists like Leo Kottke, have embraced
this sonic aesthetic. Consequently, as they have lent their talents
in support of singers like Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss, so have
their approaches to recording become integrated into the aesthetic
of their vocalist employers.
- Though not an O Brother participant, Dolly Partons
recent recordings clearly benefit from an association with an acoustic
aesthetic, and differ greatly from most of her
prior recording career which followed the trends of pop music production,
though characteristically a few years out of step. Her acoustic
bluegrass trilogy (The Grass is Blue, 1999; Little
Sparrow, 2001; Halos and Horns, 2002) is as far from acoustic
as it is from bluegrass, and stands as a vivid demonstration of the
paradox surrounding much of the neo-new traditionalist sonic aesthetic.
Though a good deal of the instrumental interplay is performed and
recorded in real time, many of Partons vocal contributions,
as well as a number of other elements were clearly overdubbed. The
aesthetic at play here involves both a simulacrum of a singular performance
made by a group of individuals in real time, as well as the sometimes
intentional, though always obvious layers of disembodied performances,
considered artistic production touches. The sounds of
guitars, fiddle and banjo are abruptly joined by ethereal choirs,
evincing a Where did that come from? response in
the listener, as in Down
From Dover from Little Sparrow.
- Partons acoustic trilogy has been touted as a return to her
east Tennessee mountain roots, and in comparison to her recordings
of the 1980s and 90s, they are remarkably different. But Parton is
not simply a Tennessee mountain girl, she is an oversized cultural
iconDolly. As she claims to wear make-up and wigs even when
not in the public eye, such surface decorations are at her very core
identity. It would be un-Dolly-like to remove the layered choirs and
echoing dobro licks from her music. She may be wearing (designer)
denim, but her make-up artists and hair stylists are still working
overtime, and as such, her recent recording endeavors stand apart
from similar offerings by her contemporaries, with one notable exception.
- The recordings of Alison Krauss
most certainly stood as a template for the Dolly Parton trilogy, both
in terms of instrumental and vocal arrangements, as well as sonic
presentation. Gary Pacsoza, who also has engineered many of Krausss
recordings, recorded Partons first two acoustic albums, and
his recording approach (clear instrumental separation, an accentuation
of the higher frequency spectrum, and a penchant for prominent reverbs)
establish a direct link between the two artists. Krausss rise
from the bluegrass festival circuit to TNN video star in the mid-90s
was an early indication that acoustic folk music could find a place
in the contemporary country music scene.
- Krauss chose songs from outside the traditional
old time and bluegrass repertoire, often looking to songwriters from
the contemporary folk scene for material and for sonic models.5
As Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman emerged from the coffeehouses with
expensive, pristine productions, a new commercial friendly recording
aesthetic was formed. Keeping the chiming acoustic guitars and breathy
vocals couched in shimmering reverbs while replacing the electric
guitars and synthesizers found in the Vega and Chapman records with
fiddles, dobros, and banjos, Krauss constructed a winning formula
that propelled her from the lower commercial echelons of the bluegrass
circuit to the top of the contemporary country charts with songs such
Long, So Wrong. The contrast between Krauss and her rhinestone
cowboy neighbors on the airwaves singled her out as an authentic
musician carrying on in the tradition of Bill Monroe, though the sonic
qualities of her recordings had more to do with upscale coffee than
downhome white lightning.
- As with many of her contemporaries, Emmylou Harris has chased the
trends of popular music, as the numerous sonic shifts reflected in
her recording career attest. However, rather than cast her eye towards
the top of the Billboard charts, she aspires to the five star Rolling
Stone review. This divergence from the commercial aspirations
of mainstream country music has always set Harris apart from most
of her Nashville contemporaries.
- Harriss most
dramatic embrace of the pop/rock aesthetic was her collaboration with
producer Daniel Lanois on 1995s Wrecking Ball. Lanoiss
previous work with U2, Peter Gabriel, The Neville Brothers, and Bob
Dylan defined one sonic aestheticthe sound of a band playing
together in the same physical space, then drenched in dense, atmospheric
textures created by multiple digital reverbs and effectsa kind
of psychedelic Americana, as in Harriss cover of Gillian Welchs
Girl. Not since Phil Spector had a producer so completely
stamped an individual sonic imprint on his work with/for other artists
- The Wrecking Ball experiment was Harriss most decisive
break from traditional Nashville musical aesthetics, and at first
sounds almost like a photographic negative to the O Brother
soundtrack. But what both projects share is a reconsideration of the
recording process. With a greater emphasis placed on capturing the
interaction between musicians at one point in time, as opposed to
the laborious assemblage of overdubbed performances, Wrecking Ball
employed the same methods used to record country music in the decades
prior to the 1960s. As an approach to process rather than a sonic
aesthetic, it can be seen as a template for the back-to-basics approach
of O Brother.
- One of the signature tracks from Wrecking Ball was Gillian
Welchs Orphan Girl, and Harriss treatment
was the first mainstream exposure given to Welchs work. Welchs
first two albums, Revival and Hell Among The Yearlings,
demonstrate Welchs fully formed voice as a songwriter,
but reflect an unfocused sonic aesthetic. Producer T-Bone Burnett,
drawing on his past work with Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, and Sam Philips,
casts about for individual sonic vehicles for Welchs material.
From Lanois-type distortion and delays on Orphan
Girl, to the Patsy Cline-esque Paper Wings,
or the strikingly effect-free intimacy of Acony
Bell and By The Mark, Welchs first two
albums represent a search for a new sonic aesthetic, but not its realization.
- Her third album, Time (The Revelator), is the culmination
of the search, and serves as the template for the post O Brother
sound. Time was a self-financed, -produced, and -released album,
and Welch and her partner David Rawlings minimized their time spent
in the studio by avoiding overdubs and extended, complex mixes. Live
performances captured with top-of-the-line microphones and preamps
resulted in a low budget/high fidelity recording.
- With Rawlings seated directly across from Welch, a simple set-up
of one microphone for each instrument and voice, unadorned by reverbs
and delays (as
Someone) provides a sonic consistency throughout the record.6
But more importantly, such direct, eye-to-eye contact captures the
process of music making among musicians, and by minimizing the separation
of isolation booths and headphones, the microphone is transformed
from distancing mediator to gathering focal point. The microphone
establishes place, and encourages musical participation
and interaction. Performance becomes directed towards fellow musicians,
and the listening audience becomes privileged voyeurs. This performance
of process became the defining aesthetic of both the O Brother
soundtrack and its successive tour, captured in the documentary, Down
From The Mountain.
- Down From The Mountain, filmed at a concert in the Ryman
Auditorium a month before the premiere of O Brother, Where Art
Thou?, provides a visual manifestation of the O Brother
sonic aesthetic. Directly emulating scenes from
O Brother when the main characters gather around a single microphone
at a radio station, and later on a grange hall stage, the vocalists
from the soundtrack gather around a microphone at center stage, supporting
musicians encircle solitary microphones at stage right and left.7
- This arrangement accomplishes two thingsthe musicians must
control their own balances to one another while performing with and
to each other, replicating the process aesthetic, and codifying the
process as a consciously attained authenticity for the
benefit of the audience. Most live music performance employs individual
microphones or other amplification for each instrument and each voice,
rendering the stage a complex obstacle course of cables and stands.
The Down From The Mountain show draws attention to the cleanliness
of the stage sightlines, most especially to the sound monitors concealed
in the stage apron, completely out of audience (and camera) view.
The theatricality of this set up calls attention to the limited technology
being visibly employed, and in many ways the audience is more aware
of these very few microphones, and of sound reinforcement in general,
than if they were witnessing the latest high-tech rock show.
- Microphone technology is reconciled with the acoustic
musical tradition by designating specific microphones as authentic.
A recent issue of Mix, an industry journal marketed to recording
engineers and producers, was devoted to Nashville and that old-time
sound. In it, an article on the Down From The Mountain
show notes, there was also nary a modern condenser mic in sight;
rather the stage was dominated by vintage Neumann U47s, mics not usually
used in concert applications, but which had the appropriate look for
the concert and film (Jackson 22).
- That a certain microphone should have an appropriate look
begs the question, who is the look appropriate to? Is there a presumption
that the audience can identify the Neumann U47, and is familiar with
its history? Or is the look more important to the musicians
behind the microphone. Either way, the deification
of the U47 as appropriate to music meant to evoke 1930s
Great Depression America is an invented tradition in that
great line of invented traditions documented by Eric Hobsbawm, Robert
Cantwell, Regina Bendix, and so many others; the Neumann company of
Berlin, Germany only began manufacturing the U47 in 1947.8
- The first test of the post-O Brother marketplace, T-Bone
Burnetts production of Ralph Stanley, fails to achieve
the effect of the new sonic aesthetic, and is instead an example of
processing used to salvage a faulty process. O Death,
Stanleys stand out performance from the soundtrack was an a
cappella performance, and it is the a cappella performances on Ralph
Stanley that are the most rewarding. The songs that feature Burnetts
A-List bluegrass studio band work only intermittently; the success
of each recording is in inverse proportion to the number of instruments
employed in the arrangements.
- Part of the problem lies in the difficult task of recording and
balancing Stanleys singing voice with the more delicate sounds
produced by guitars and mandolins. The nasal cavity-induced partials
and transients that could wreak havoc with recording levels are brought
under control with the aid of compression, liberally used. Compression,
used in many stages of recording to keep levels from distorting, can
also be used to keep several high-amplitude producing signals (such
as drums and electric guitars) present in the mix, without overwhelming
other signals also vying for space. This is a common
technique in rock and pop production, exaggeratedly so in recent years,
and has been a hallmark of Burnetts work with rock bands and
pop artists.9 But why would this be
necessary for Ralph Stanley?
- The answer may lie in the performance. It is telling that Stanleys
band, The Clinch Mountain Boys, do not appear on the record. Replacing
touring bands with studio pros is common practice in Nashville, and
it may be that Burnett was looking for musicians who could pull off
the more sculpted arrangements he had in mind (as opposed to a band
all playing at full throttle). But not all eye-to-eye musical performers
see eye-to-eye. Stanley sounds uncomfortable with the musicians, and
his performance doesnt match the dynamic fluctuations the studio
band is trying to create. The solution: compression, and lots of it.
This keeps the dynamics in check, but sounds unnatural,
so delays are used to place his voice in a larger psycho-acoustic
setting. Rather than striving to create a mystic, mythical environment
as Daniel Lanois often does, Burnett uses these delays to conceal
the technological artifice of compression with an artificial naturalness,
a digitally simulated physical acoustic space. However, instead of
the exoticized mountaintop that is the apparent goal of the production,
the results simply sound like Stanley singing through a cardboard
box, heard in False
Hearted Lovers Blues.
- The difficulties pop/rock record producers like Burnett encounter
in their attempts to construct an acoustic aesthetic are
mirrored by artists like Dolly Parton who have spent their entire
careers attempting to re-cast acoustic music in the (often outdated)
image of pop/rock. The O Brother aesthetic, very consciously
constructed, yet accidentally arrived at as a commercially viable
template, may prove to be more of a millstone than a breakthrough,
as evidenced by Burnetts unsuccessful attempt to replicate the
formula with Ralph Stanley. As the widely variant sonic character
of O Brother alumni recordings demonstrate, the more lasting
impact of this aesthetic may lie in the approach to process rather
than processing. Instead of a wave of acoustically oriented,
old-time Americana artists dominating the charts, I envision other
musical genres adapting the sonic model of the process for commercial
successa precedent has already been set by MTVs extremely
plugged Unplugged series. Perhaps Madonna, Britney Spears,
or Beck will embrace the solitary Neumann U47, unencumbered by other
electronic wizardry for their next genre-hop. Who needs the two turntables
when youve got the right microphone?
1. For example, Owen Bradleys work with Patsy
Cline, along with Chet Atkins countrypolitan productions
was modeled on the high-art orchestrated aspirations of Frank Sinatras
recordings for Capitol; Billy Sherrills production work with Tammy
Wynette was a response to the controlled chaos of Phil Spector and Motown;
late 70s Nashville recordings drew inspiration from the Los Angeles
based recordings of The Eagles, James Taylor, and Linda Ronstadt; and
most recently, the sound of Shania Twain has dominated country radio,
her hits produced by her husband, Mutt Lange, the man responsible for
much of the pop-metal hits of the eighties by groups like Foreigner
and Def Leppard.
2. For examples of this sound
see The Nitty Gritty Dirt Bands Will The Circle Be Unbroken
(Capitol 63686, 1972), or any of the early New Grass Revival records.
3. This sound was in turn modeled
on the ECM jazz records of the 1970s, right down to the album cover
4. From Gramscis subaltern,
this term is meant to describe an economically and politically powerful
demographic that is nonetheless discounted and marginalized by the recording
industry. Occasionally they make their presence in the marketplace known
by embracing particular recordings, for example Bonnie Raitts
Nick of Time (Capitol 91268, 1989), Eric Claptons Unplugged
(Warner Bros., 1992), Santanas Supernatural (Arista, 1999),
and now the O Brother soundtrack.
5. On her album Ive Got
That Old Feeling, Krauss sang a version of a then unreleased Shawn
Colvin song I Dont Know Why, (which Colvin herself
would have a hit with the following year) gaining a significant measure
of mainstream country radio airplay.
6. This is clearly visible in
the liner photos, a fact that subtly attempts to make a case for an
authentic technologically mediated process. One exceptionthe
large hall acoustics of Ryman Auditorium on I Want To Sing That
Rock And Roll, from the Down From The Mountain film.
7. Tellingly, the bass player
is given his own unobtrusive mic at the rear of the stagebass
being particularly difficult to isolate from other sounds in a room,
and considered a crucial component in audiophile reproductionsomethings
got to come out of that subwoofer in ones recently acquired surround
Though, it is true that the U47 is still considered one of the ultimate
recording microphones, a link to the traditions of Sinatra, The Beatles,
George Jones, or Marvin Gaye, depending on ones particular aesthetic
9. An interesting comparison can
be made between one pop old-timer resurrection and another. In 1994,
Rick Rubin, known for his work with Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, and the
Red Hot Chili Peppers, released a recording of Johnny Cash, American
Recordings, recorded solo, with no overdubs or reverberant treatments,
largely in his living room. Rather than placing Cash, a man with decades
of state-of-the-(Nashville)-art recording experience in a contemporary
context, Rubin presents him as a Lomax field recording discovery, performing
such traditional classics as Glenn Danzigs Thirteen.
Cashs man in black persona always had an appeal to
the rock crowd, and this whittled down recording aesthetic reflects
trends in the rock world towards simplified recording techniques with
lots of instrumental bleed and murky room tones.
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Studies. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.
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New York: Avon Books, 1999.
Cantwell, Robert. Ethnomimesis: Folklife and the Representation
of Culture. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press,
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