Commercial radio basically ignores country roots music, but 6 million in sales of the "O Brother, Where Art Thou" soundtrack shows there is a market. And the "Down From the Mountain" tour, which comes here Tuesday, is taking it to the people.

By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

August 4,2002


RCA released a collection of Elvis Presley's gold records in 1959 with the smug, defiant title: "50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong." Of course, by then, Elvis was a force that couldn't be ignored and radio stations were right there with him, making his music a regular feature on their playlists.

In the '80s, punk rock pulled a similar maneuver, leveraging sales to win broad radio play; in the '90s, it happened with rap.

Apparently, though, millions of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" fans can be wrong, at least to mainstream country radio.

Moviegoers who went into the theater as fans of the Coen Brothers or George Clooney came out appreciating the music. The film's simple songs of sin and redemption -- acoustic tunes, with deep, traditional country roots -- touched millions.

But the big country stations didn't seem to notice. The world of SheDaisy, Brad Paisley and Alan Jackson has continued to play the tried-and-true style of music that makes for easy listening and predictable profits.

It's a stubborn move, considering how music fans have embraced the soundtrack, released along with the movie in December 2000.

Fueled, in part, by Stanley's haunting rendition of "O Death," the "O Brother" soundtrack, on Lost Highway Records, was still No. 25 on the Billboard Top 200 Chart last week -- and it's been on the chart for 82 weeks. On the country chart, it was No. 3 after 85 weeks.

Popular roots performer Ricky Skaggs likens the reaction to "O Brother" to that of "Riverdance," which touched on "old feelings and blood lines we've had in this country for two or three hundred years."

"Well, like, duh, it really has to do with the music," says Skaggs, one of the "Down From the Mountain" performers. "There's something going on in the hearts and spirits and souls of people who are hungry for this kind of music."

Kip Loui, a local musician (Rockhouse Ramblers, Belle Starr), Twangfest board member and radio DJ ("The Back Country" on KDHX) credits the music's success to the fact that, "It sounded fresh, it sounded real and it sounded timeless. So much (of current) country (music) is truly disposable."

Stanley calls the music "humble."

"Well, you know, a lotta people have never heard this type of music before they heard it in the movie or on the soundtrack," he says. "And, I think - I might be wrong - but I think a lotta folks could be wanting to change the sound of what they call country music today. The old style sort of stuck with them. There's a lotta history in it. I guess, to be plain, it's just good old-time country music."

Tuning into that sound on the radio requires some looking. Local listeners can catch it frequently on KDHX-FM (88.1) or KCLC-FM (89.1); not coincidentally, both are public stations. And they can hear it on Americana-format stations that play roots rock, alternative country, bluegrass, folk and acoustic music. But fans have to seek out these stations on the Internet, because there aren't any in St. Louis.

Where it's not

Radio listeners won't hear the music on WIL-FM (92.3) or KSD-FM (93.7), the region's top country outlets. Ron Schell, program manager of WIL, declined a formal interview about the station's playlist. In an e-mail, he said only: "I'm afraid I don't have much to tell you about the 'O Brother' phenomenon. We played it on the air a bit but it never really made it into a 'power' rotation."

Lon Helton, longtime country music editor at the trade publication Radio & Records, said the "O Brother" music, especially "Constant Sorrow," has had "several lives" but "it's true that when it came out, it did not get much airplay."

Part of the problem is in the music's identity. Is that old-time sound country, bluegrass, folk? Could all those genres co-exist comfortably on one station?

"Whenever you get into an area with bluegrass, your audience is very polarized," Helton said. "People either really love it or they really don't. And it's really hard for a radio station to justify playing music that a large portion of its audience doesn't really like, sales or no sales."

There's also a question of what kind of audience wants to hear traditional music. Does it appeal to young listeners or older ones? Media outlets make money by selling advertising and the businesses that buy airtime generally prefer younger audiences.

Helton said that one of the biggest problems with using sales data compiled by the Soundscan service used by Billboard is that "Soundscan tells you gross sales, but it doesn't tell you who bought it. So radio stations have to get a feel for what their audience is."

A large number of avid country radio listeners say that they've been exposed to the "O Brother" music - and that they want to hear more of it. This comes from a study, "Winning the Country Music Campaign," conducted in February for the country music industry by AmericanViewpoint and Cooper and Secrest Associates Inc. (The margin of error is 3.2 percentage points.)

Thirty-six percent of 1,009 qualified respondents (people who hated country music and never listened were screened out) were identified as strong, or core, listeners. Of that group, 28 percent had seen "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"; 31 percent said they were familiar with the music or owned the soundtrack; and 50 percent said they'd like to hear more music just like it.

After this study was presented to radio executives at the annual Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, Tenn., in March (and after the "O Brother" soundtrack collected Grammy and Country Music Association awards), the Soggy Bottom Boys had some action on the singles chart, with the album's "Constant Sorrow" rising briefly into the low 30s.

Missing the boat

Helton said Randy Michaels, the former CEO of Clear Channel Entertainment, which owns country station KSD-FM (The Bull) in St. Louis, s uggested to his peers and employees at the seminar that radio had missed the boat on the "O Brother" soundtrack.

"He said, 'I think you guys were wrong. When there is a phenomenon and you are the only format that can take that phenomenon to the people, I think you should be doing it,'" Helton said.

When the executives and DJs got home, Helton said, they again played "Constant Sorrow" and it climbed the charts. But the album had been out for almost two years by then, he said, "and maybe 6 million people owned the record and had played it and didn't want to hear it anymore."

The stations "found that, by and large, their instincts were pretty proven out: The public just really didn't care for that song in the mix."

Skaggs says the treatment of "O Brother" is "a sad thing to see. It's sold 6 million, yet country radio sloughs it off like it never happened. It just shows the pride and arrogance of country radio, they don't want to admit the music is worth playing. They're still in denial that it ha ppened."

Loui says: "The gatekeepers still want to keep it at bay. The money people really believe that this music is antiquated and just a flash in the pan. They are reluctant to toy with the current structure" because the music business is making millions with what's on the radio now.

"They took country music and sucked out all the twang," Loui says. "Not to be pessimistic, but I doubt whether roots country has a place (on mainstream radio). But it will always have a niche; young people will alway s discover it."

Leave it to the people

Christine Peick of the local bluegrass band Raven Moon suggests "O Brother" fans seek this music out on the Web, at bluegrass festivals and on public radio.

"(Big country) radio stations are not taking a chance on anything unusual, and they have financial reasons for that," she says. "But I think the public is tired of being fed a narrow stream of music that is decided on by radio executives.

"(People) would like to choose their own music for themselves, and they can do that now with the Internet and computers. And people are loving it, because they can have a sense of their own style."

Peick says a movie like "O Brother" just gave people "a taste of it, and the public always knows what's good."

Skaggs doesn't think the "O Brother" phenomenon is going to fade.

"We're finding a lot of stations - Americana type that aren't bound by people who go out and do testing, the consultants - are playing these records," he says.

Skaggs has hope, though. Country radio is playing "Halfway Home Cafe" from his "History of the Future," Dolly Parton has a new bluegrass CD and the forthcoming Dixie Chicks release features a more acoustic and bluegrass sound. Oddly, Helton and Stanley agree on one thing.

Helton: "So you say, OK, where are we here? Well, I always thought the good news for the record label is that they weren't 100 percent dependent on country airplay to sell records."

Stanley: "The 'O Brother' CD has sold around 7 million now, and it don't look like big radio is really needed, does it?"

Here's where to tune in, kick back

Here are some radio stations -- actual and virtual -- where fans can hear roots rock, bluegrass, alternative country, folk and traditional country:

KDHX-FM (88.1)

Check the program schedule for more info at www.kdhx.org; these are just three of many programs:

The Back Country, 8 to 10 a.m. on Tuesdays: Host Kip Loui spins new traditional country music, from Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard to Robbie Fulks and the Derailers.

Country Function/Bluegrass Junction, 10 a.m. to noon Tuesdays: Gene Roberts and Larry Allen play country and bluegrass, feature local and unknown artists, and conduct interviews.

Fishin' With Dynamite, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursdays: It's the alt-country place to be, from roots rock to cowpunk, with host Fred Friction.

Songwriters Showcase, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays: New folk and country, from singer/songwriters to alt-country.

KCLC-FM (89.1)

Bluegrass from 7 to 10 p.m. weeknights, from the campus of Lindenwood University.



Sure, you can sign up, pay up and put a funny little dish on your car. But if you have a fast DSL or cable Internet connection, you can listen on the Web for free. Click on "country" and choose from six categories, including alt-country and bluegrass.



This is a commercial Americana station from New Braunfels, Texas, that plays lots of country styles, much of it from Texas artists.



This is a listing of about three dozen "on-air stations and schedules (most with a twangy edge)" that broadcast on the Web.