meta-script20 Years Ago, 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Crashed The Country Music Party | GRAMMY.com
(L-R) John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson and George Clooney in 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?'

(L-R) John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson and George Clooney in 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?'

Photo: Universal/Getty Images

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20 Years Ago, 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Crashed The Country Music Party

In honor of the 20-year anniversary of the GRAMMY-winning album, GRAMMY.com spoke to the creative minds behind the groundbreaking soundtrack, including T Bone Burnett, Dan Tyminski, Luke Lewis and others

GRAMMYs/Dec 6, 2020 - 02:29 am

The Coen Brothers' 2000 tragicomedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?, set in Mississippi during the Great Depression, pulls deeply from the early-20th century American songbook to drive the film's Homeric storyline, which entangles the lives of escaped convicts Delmar O'Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney).

But while nearly all 19 tracks on the original soundtrack, released December 5, 2000, are once-popular songs enshrined in the Library of Congress, the music wasn't designed to be a hit outside the world of the Soggy Bottom Boys, the film's fictional band composed of the main characters. "Old-Time Music is Very Much Alive!" trumpets the faux Nashville Banner headline in the liner notes to the film's original soundtrack, "But you won't hear it on 'country' radio." 

The prophecy proved true. The popularity of O Brother, Where Art Thou? didn't help traditional music break into radio programmers' playlists—the single for "I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow" peaked at No. 35 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart—but it didn't matter. The soundtrack sold more than 8 million copies in the U.S., certified eight times platinum, and won Album Of The Year at the 44th GRAMMY Awards.

On that February evening in 2002, bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley stunned the audience at the Staples Center in Los Angeles with an a cappella performance of "O Death," a traditional folk song featured on the soundtrack, delivered by the then-73-year-old under a single spotlight in the middle of the darkened arena. (Stanley went on to win the Best Male Country Vocal Performance GRAMMY for the track that night.)

"Having Ralph Stanley stand on a stool in the middle of the room and sing 'O Death' was the pinnacle of my entire career," Luke Lewis, whose Lost Highway label released the soundtrack and who also led the Nashville operations of Mercury, MCA and UMG at various points, tells GRAMMY.com. "I was sitting with a bunch of f*cking gangster rappers who were completely blown away."

But the odyssey began long before a host of country, gospel and bluegrass ringers upturned the industry on music's biggest night—before the Coen Brothers even began filming, in fact.

In the spring of 1999, producer T Bone Burnett convened at Sound Emporium in Nashville with a who's who of roots musicians from the city's vibrant bluegrass scene, including Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss & Union Station, to put the song cycle to tape. Lewis, who was just beginning to assemble Lost Highway Records as a creative haven for roots artists like Lucinda Williams, caught wind of the sessions and went to investigate.

"I walked into that creative process when all that was going on, and the Coen Brothers are hanging, T Bone's in there," Lewis recalls. "All these amazing artists come in there and do the record old school, with a mic in the middle of the room."

Classics such as "I'll Fly Away," "You Are My Sunshine" and "In The Jailhouse Now"—the latter sung by actor Tim Blake Nelson—are rendered slower and lower than typical bluegrass interpretations. That was an intentional move, Burnett says, to capitalize on the bass response of the subwoofer-loaded sound systems in movie theaters.

"The first thing we did was stretch the sonic spectrum that bluegrass was ordinarily recorded in, which was very high—the banjo was high, the singing was high, the violins were high, the mandolins were high—and we lowered it a couple of octaves and approached it more as a rock 'n' roll album rather than a traditional bluegrass record."

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While Krauss took lead vocals on "Down To The River To Pray," elsewhere collaborating with Welch and Emmylou Harris on "Didn't Leave Nobody But The Baby," her Union Station guitarist Dan Tyminski was asked to audition for the cut of a lifetime: singing lead on "I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow," the hit Soggy Bottom Boys song "sung" by George Clooney in the film. 

"I was happy to do it, but I honestly didn't feel like it made a lot of sense," Tyminski remembers. "I didn't necessarily see myself sounding like Clooney's voice at the time, but it's hard to see from your own perspective what other people see or hear. So, I went back and auditioned the next day, and somehow [I] got it, and just couldn't have been more shocked at what would follow."

Read: 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Soundtrack | For The Record

The brains behind the soundtrack were just as surprised when the film opened in France, prior to its stateside debut, and sold 70,000 copies of the album within a month. It was a hint of what was to come in the U.S. 

As the film's signature song, "I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow" helped drive the soundtrack to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200, where it spent 15 weeks during a 683-week run on the chart.

The song became Tyminski's calling card, but he almost didn't get to play it. After his version was done and filming had begun, Clooney himself asked to take a pass at the vocal. Tyminski went back to the studio on a day off from shooting and backed him on guitar.

"George is actually a really great singer and had learned the song well, and he sang a killer version of it," Burnett says. "But it didn't have the thrill in it that Dan's version had. And so I just said, 'This is great, but we're supposed to be making a movie about a hit record, and now we've got something that sounds like a hit record, so I think we should stick with that. What do you think?' And I think he was relieved, really."

Tyminski says the recording process also played a role in the decision to use his version. "It's not that he couldn't do the job," he says, "but for the sake of the movie, it had to be one take, live, no fixes. It was all really pure, all very organic. 

"After he had taken a couple of swings at it and got the words jumbled a couple of times, he says, 'Dan, I'll make you a deal: I'll act, you sing.' And quite honestly, I was so disappointed because I thought it was so cool to have recorded the song with Clooney. At the time, it felt like that was a bigger deal than singing the song myself. It wasn't until a little bit later that I realized what a loss that would have been. It ended up being the biggest song of my career, easily."

Read: Exclusive: Gillian Welch On Vinyl, Songwriting, 'O Brother...' & More

Tracking down the writers of songs composed nearly a century earlier proved to be an enormous job for Burnett and Denise Stiff, who managed Welch and Union Station. The songs were recorded and re-recorded over the decades, and many versions were unique enough to support their own copyrights. That meant when Burnett used or rewrote an arrangement, they had to determine which previous version of the song was closest and credit the right people. 

"'Man Of Constant Sorrow' has, I think, 50 copyrights in the Library Of Congress," Burnett says. "The one we worked with most closely was The Stanley Brothers' version. Even though we had done our own arrangement, we could've gotten sued by 50 people for infringement."

The version of "I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow" recorded for the film earned Tyminski a GRAMMY for Best Country Collaboration With Vocals at the 2002 GRAMMYs. In addition to the Album Of The Year win, the soundtrack also won for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album For A Motion Picture, Television Or Other Visual Media, while T Bone Burnett won for Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical.

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Two decades later, it's hard to say what lasting impact the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou? made on contemporary country music, or popular music in general. The widespread acclaim for the film and soundtrack is undeniable, and they both made gobs of money. But it could be argued—and Burnett does—that a revival of roots music was already underway when it all hit. 

"The reason I think it was so successful [was] because, one, there was already a very strong traditional music trend," Burnett says. "Kids were learning how to do it."

So-called "alt-country" bands like Wilco and Old 97's were impacting the lower rungs of industry charts, along with Jayhawks, Whiskeytown and others. Bluegrass trio Nickel Creek had hooked up with Krauss and released their 2000 self-titled, platinum-selling album, while bluegrass-adjacent bands Old Crow Medicine Show and The Avett Brothers were beginning to make names for themselves on the touring circuit. 

"Certainly, country radio didn't change, and you wish for things like that to happen," Lost Highway founder Lewis says. "But it makes you aware that there's a wider world than what you hear on mainstream radio, and for a lot of people who really love music, you need something to lead you down the path because it's hard to find guideposts to things you might like. I think O Brother had that sort of impact."

There's another reason, too, Burnett suggests. On the night of the 2002 GRAMMYs, Americans were still reeling from the September 11 terrorist attacks that took place just five months earlier. Tony Bennett and Billy Joel sang a duet on "New York State Of Mind," a nod to the resilience of the city amid tragedy. Alan Jackson performed "Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)" in front of children's art created in reaction to the attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. And in the middle of it all, Ralph Stanley stood on the GRAMMY stage, alone and vulnerable, pleading with his maker, "Won't you spare me over for another year?"

"Art responds to events without the artists meaning to at all," Burnett says. "The Beatles weren't responding to Kennedy's assassination, and yet everything about The Beatles felt like the thing that we needed the most after the Kennedy assassination. People were looking for our identity as Americans. Why did we get hit like this? Who were we?"

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While the music of O Brother, Where Art Thou? offered millions of Americans the comfort of nostalgia, it impacted others in more material ways.

"It did amazing things for the artists that were involved," Lewis says. "All of a sudden, they were going on the road and making 10 times what they made before the record came out. They got royalty payments that they probably didn't ever dream of."

Mississippi-born singer James Carter had forgotten about the day in September 1959 when Alan Lomax recorded him singing "Po Lazarus" at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman until producers tracked him down in Chicago to present him with a platinum record plaque and a $20,000 royalty check for his performance. The 76-year-old former convict even attended the GRAMMY Awards that night, though he could barely remember recording the song.

In the years that followed, Tyminski recalls that the demographics of Union Station shows began to swing younger than before: more rock T-shirts, more spiked haircuts. He also remembers the rousing applause for the song that George Clooney, as Ulysses Everett McGill, sang into a can in the film's pivotal recording scene.

"From that point forward, that song was in every single show that we did," Tyminski says. "But when you have a song that's been that good to you and that people identify with and they want to hear, shame on you if you're not willing to play that song for the rest of your life."

How 1995 Became A Blockbuster Year For Movie Soundtracks

"Bridgerton" Season 3
"Bridgerton" Season 3

Photo: Netflix

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"Bridgerton" Composer Kris Bowers & Vitamin String Quartet Continue To Make Classical Music Pop For Season 3

The Netflix show returns for its third season on May 16. Composer Kris Bowers, alongside the Vitamin String Quartet and other artists, masterfully reimagines modern pop with a classical twist, including a Taylor Swift hit.

GRAMMYs/May 16, 2024 - 02:31 pm

No one is arguing that “Bridgerton” is realistic or even particularly historically accurate — in fact, leaning into anachronisms is the point. Entering its third season, which premieres on May 16, the pulpy Netflix show based on a series of romance novels by Julia Quinn — often classified as “bodice rippers” — mixes modern life ideas with Regency-era social rules.

From Lady Whistledown's tantalizing gossip columns to the complex romances of the Bridgerton siblings, the series grips viewers with its blend of historical drama and contemporary flair. One key note in that chord is classical music. Instead of using current tracks like some historical-contemporary-hybrids (most famously “A Knight’s Tale" in 2001), “Bridgerton” has mastered the art of the classical cover. 

Paired with original compositions by Kris Bowers, an Oscar winner and GRAMMY nominee — including one for Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media for "Bridgerton" — the tone of the show is that of a heightened, classic world. Bowers, along with music supervisor Justin Kamps collaborates with the Vitamin String Quartet and other artists to create a full circle sonic landscape. They make the classical music in “Bridgerton” pop by re-recording, rearranging, and reimagining contemporary pop songs as classic pieces. 

Over three seasons, as well as with the spin off, “Queen Charlotte,” the team has included a mix of the newest songs as well as nostalgic favorites. This season features GAYLE’s “abcdefu,” which was released in 2022 as well as a cover of Pitbull, Ne-Yo, and Afrojack’s “Give Me Everything,” which was released in 2011, which can appease the full gamut of millennial and Gen Z viewers.  

Regency traditions 

The Regency period in which the show is based, spanned from 1811 to 1820, and was known as an era of elegance and refinement in British history.  In the first chunk of the 1800s, pop music included pieces by Beethoven, Liszt, Haydn, and Mendlesson (famous for the “Wedding March”). Waltzes were all the rage, and this “new” music was considered much more emotional and passionate than previous offerings. The romance of being swept away in a dance increased the thrill, and string quartets were highly popular. 

As seen throughout the series (and much like today), society placed a significant emphasis on social gatherings and music played a central role in these events. Balls, soirées, and intimate musical evenings were common, the perfect backdrop for orchestrating romance. 

In “Bridgerton," the show's modern portrayal of the Regency period occasionally features or references music from the time period, such as Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” which was written a century before the events in the show but was and is still a popular piece of classical music. The show frequently uses arrangements of classical songs in a slightly modern way, but most often, it underscores scenes with either classically arranged covers of pop songs or original music by Bowers. 

Contemporary music covers

Choosing between a cover or original music is a nuanced decision for the music team. The music team considers “whether or not, there's something that can, lyrically, even though we don't hear lyrics, speak to a moment really well,” said Bowers. Absent a cover by an outside band, Bowers arranges pop hits to suit the tone of the scene. He said, “when you're saying something with a song, you're making commentary on what's happening.” 

When they do outsource tracks, more often than not, these covers come from Los Angeles-based Vitamin String Quartet. VSQ is the new Mendlesson in that they have been the predominant wedding-march artist for nearly a decade, known for producing string renditions of highly eclectic mix of artists including Cardi B, Lana Del Rey, Björk, and Sigur Rós

They contributed four covers in season one, including Billie Elish's “bad guy” and Ariana Grande's “Thank U, Next,” about which Leo Flynn, VSQ Brand Manager at CMH Label Group said, “Talk about a great track changing the temperature of a room.” In season two, VSQ’s cover of Robyn's “Dancing on My Own” played under a dance scene. 

When we spoke to James Curtiss, Director of A&R at CMH, the song placements for season three were still a mystery. Curtiss shared, “When we finished that Taylor [Swift] record, we sent it right over to the people at ‘Bridgerton.’” 

[Spoiler alert:] Since then, we have learned Swift's “Snow on the Beach” will be featured in season three. This isn't the first time Swift's music has been featured in the show: Duomo’s cover of “Wildest Dreams” played under the honeymoon scenes in season one. 

Composer Bowers added his favorite cover of the season is in episode eight, the finale, but what title that is will be a surprise. The surprise of an “unexpected cover” as Bowers calls it is that when you “hear a song that you know, and have this strong indelible connection with it that is represented in this style that you typically don't feel like is for you. People get excited by having this music that they really love be elevated to this other level.” He said the familiarity makes “you feel connected to this time period, these characters, and these people in a different way.” 

Flynn said, “There’s something about the past that’s inherently romantic,” and the use of VSQ songs “unites something from the past with what’s going on now.” Because classical music “feels very idealized and formal,” he said, “there’s all this history and mystique built into it.” 

Flynn also mentioned that “Bridgerton” fuses past and present on a “major storytelling scale” between the historically-inspired stories themselves, the “visual feast” of the show, and the music. Curtiss added that the “romantic nature of the string quartet” juxtaposed with pop songs helps viewers tie the feeling of going to a bar or club to the experience of hearing “the popular bangers of the day,” as he called Beethoven et al., at a ball in the Regency era. 

Original compositions

When the music needs to set a specific tone without taking the audience out of the action to try and name that tune, “Bridgerton” often uses original compositions by Bowers. Bowers said, “Looking at pop music for those things like rhythm and tempo and all that stuff also helps in moments where we want to have the score feel a little bit more modern and not as traditional.” He continued, “I’ll put something in the violas and the celli that have this kind of guitar and bass feeling to them even though we’re looking at it orchestrationally from a classical perspective.” He explained that “borrowing the rhythms or the way that parts interlock from pop music” makes it feel like a modern classical sound. 

Each character and couple has their own theme. Bowers explained that it was enjoyable to create themes that could fit both heartbreaking and celebratory moments. “The melodies are still the same even if the harmonic tone is changed,” he said.

Instrumental Pop In Visual Media

The “Bridgerton” style of using instrumentalized versions of pop songs is not unique. Famously, “Promising Young Woman” used a haunting version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” adapted by Anthony Willis, and “Westworld’s” Ramin Djawadi used adaptations of Radiohead among others. “Wednesday” featured a stirring string version of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black.” The popularity of Vitamin String Quartet and other classical cover bands has not waned and, if anything, is becoming more of a mainstream staple.

As season three approaches, the unveiling of the time-spanning, romantic soundtrack is highly anticipated. Four episodes air May 16 and the second half of the season airs June 13, with original compositions by Kris Bowers and additional music by various artists, including Vitamin String Quartet, who will be taking over Pandora’s Classical Goes Pop in anticipation of their fall, “Bridgerton”-music-filled tour. 

Overall, to find the tone of the whole series, Bowers said, “Season three actually has a lot more lightness to it. (Showrunners) Shonda (Rhimes) and Jess (Brownell) really want to have a lot of fun this season so there's a little bit more of a playful, youthful quality to the music.” Whatever tunes make it into the season, they are sure to be a feast for the ears. 

Meet Usher Collaborator Pheelz, The Nigerian Producer & Singer Who Wants You To 'Pheelz Good

Lurrie Bell Lil Ed Williams
Lurrie Bell and Lil' Ed Williams

Photo: Christopher Caldwell

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Blues Music Awards 2024 and Blues Hall Of Fame Inductee Ceremony Honor the Past, Present, & Future Of The Blues

The Blues Music Awards kicked off several days of events honoring the genre's legacy, which included the Blues Hall of Fame Inductee ceremony and the opening of an innovative new exhibit at the Blues Hall of Fame featuring a hologram of Taj Mahal.

GRAMMYs/May 15, 2024 - 12:40 am

It was a big week for music in Memphis. The 45th annual Blues Music Awards, a top honor in the genre, were handed out on Thursday, May 9, in Memphis, Tenn. in a ceremony sponsored by the Recording Academy. The awards were the capstone to several days of blues-related events, including the annual Blues Hall of Fame induction ceremony the day before.  

An audience of approximately 1,000 — including industry professionals, fans, and some of the genre's biggest artists — packed the grand main exhibit hall of the recently renovated Renasant Convention Center for the BMAs banquet, produced by the Memphis-based Blues Foundation. With 25 awards and more than a dozen performances, the awards show, hosted by broadcast veteran Tavis Smiley, often felt more like a homecoming than an industry event.

Read below for four key takeaways from this year's Blues Music Awards and Blue Hall of Fame Ceremony.

Mississippi's Blues Roots Remain Strong

Located right next to Memphis, Mississippi is home to one of the country's four GRAMMY Museums and is widely regarded as one of the birthplaces — if not the birthplace — of the blues. The state has nurtured some of the genre's greatest talents, including Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King. The Magnolia State's deep connection to the blues was evident during the awards, with Mississippi mainstays and GRAMMY winners Bobby Rush and Christone "Kingfish" Ingram among the top winners. 

Despite a 65-year age difference, Rush and Ingram share a deep devotion to the blues. At 90 years old, Rush, an incredibly spry chitlin' circuit road warrior who has re-emerged in recent years as perhaps one the blues' biggest stars, won Best Soul Blues Album for All My Love for You and his second B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award. Ingram, only 25 years old and already a GRAMMY winner for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2022, was the night's top winner, taking home four awards: Album of the Year and Contemporary Blues Album of the Year for Live in London, Contemporary Blues Male Artist, and Instrumentalist-Guitar.

Other multiple award winners included another artist originally from Mississippi, 79-year-old Chicago guitarist John Primer, who won Traditional Blues Male Artist and Traditional Blues Album for Teardrops for Magic Slim, and Texas' Ruthie Foster, who captured top vocalist honors and won Song of the Year for "What Kind Of Fool," co-written with Hadden Sayers and Scottie Miller.

The Blues Need To Be Seen To Be Heard

Though the BMAs largely honor recorded works, the show itself emphasized that the blues are a genre best experienced live. The ceremony, which ran about four hours (historically on the shorter side for this event), was packed full of performances, most running longer than your typical awards show slots. 

Highlights included the opening set by emerging artist nominee Candice Ivory, who performed selections from her BMA-nominated album When the Levee Breaks: The Music of Memphis Minnie, backed by keyboardist Ben Levin and guitarist William Lee Ellis, who also played songs from his album Ghost Hymns, a nominee for Best Acoustic Album.

Another Mississippi artist, powerhouse bandleader Castro Coleman, known as Mr. Sipp, who has one GRAMMY nomination and an appearance on a GRAMMY-winning Count Basie Orchestra album, brought the crowd to their feet early with his gospel-fueled segment. To cement his Best Guitarist win, Ingram delivered a blistering performance with his band, wading into the audience for one of his beautifully precise, soaring solos.

There was so much music to be heard that it spilled out into the streets. Most nights following BMA-related events, fans and fellow artists could be found in the clubs on Beale Street, the famous Home of the Blues, for showcases and impromptu jam sessions. These were highlighted by the 10th annual Down In the Basement fundraiser for the Blues Foundation on Wednesday. Organized and hosted by Big Llou Johnson, a blues musician and host of Sirius XM's B.B. King's Bluesville channel, the show featured appearances by Mr. Sipp, GRAMMY nominees Southern Avenue, and more.

Honoring The Blues' Past

Among the other events that made up BMA week was the Blues Hall of Fame Induction ceremony, held on May 8 at Memphis' Cannon Center for the Performing Arts before a crowd of about 200, including past inductees Bobby Rush and Taj Mahal. Hosted by artists Gaye Adegbalola (Saffire — the Uppity Blues Women), GRAMMY winner Dom Flemons (Carolina Chocolate Drops), and veteran blues radio deejay Bill Wax, the observance saw the induction of seven artists, five blues singles, one album, a book, and a blues academic into the Hall of Fame.

Highlights from the evening included Alligator Records head Bruce Iglauer's humor-filled induction of Chicago house stompers Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials in the performers category; the heartfelt introduction of the late folk singer Odetta by her friend Maria Muldaur and the emotional acceptance by Odetta's daughter, Michelle Esrick; and former National Endowment for the Humanities chairman William R. Ferris, inducted as a non-performer, delivering a circuitous-but-engrossing recounting of his life documenting blues music and culture.

Bringing The Blues To Life 

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal stands in front of the exhibit featuring his own hologram. | Photo: Kimberly Horton

One of the non-award related highlights of the week was the opening of a new exhibit at the Blues Foundation's Blues Hall of Fame, also on May 8, which introduced a high-tech element to the down-home genre. Musician Taj Mahal was on hand the day before for the unveiling of a cutting-edge AI-powered hologram of himself that acts as a virtual tour guide for the Half of Fame, allowing visitors to interact with the blues great. 

This hologram, only the second exhibit of its kind in America (the first is in the Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame in Boston), uses Holobox, a new technology from Holoconnects, to render a life-like image that can answer questions, talk about exhibits, and play instruments. Taj Mahal, who had to sit and talk for several hours for the technology to scan his likeness and voice, is the first artist to receive the virtual treatment from the Blues Foundation. Bobby Rush and Keb' Mo' are expected to be added later.

Explore the full list of 2024 BMA winners below to celebrate the artists keeping the blues alive and discover who took home the top honors this year. 

2024 BMA Winners

B.B. King Entertainer of the Year

Bobby Rush

Album of the Year

Live In London, Christone "Kingfish" Ingram

Band of the Year

Nick Moss Band

Song of the Year

"What Kind Of Fool," written by Ruthie Foster, Hadden Sayers & Scottie Miller

Best Emerging Artist Album

The Right Man, D.K. Harrell

Acoustic Blues Album

Raw Blues 1, Doug MacLeod

Blues Rock Album

Blood Brothers, Mike Zito/ Albert Castiglia

Contemporary Blues Album

Live In London, Christone "Kingfish" Ingram

Soul Blues Album

All My Love For You, Bobby Rush

Traditional Blues Album

Teardrops for Magic Slim, John Primer

Acoustic Blues Artist

Keb' Mo'

Blues Rock Artist

Mike Zito

Contemporary Blues Female Artist

Danielle Nicole

Contemporary Blues Male Artist

Christone "Kingfish" Ingram

Soul Blues Female Artist

Annika Chambers

Soul Blues Male Artist

John Nemeth

Traditional Blues Female Artist (Koko Taylor Award)

Sue Foley

Traditional Blues Male Artist

John Primer

Instrumentalist – Bass

Bob Stroger

Instrumentalist – Drums

Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith

Instrumentalist – Guitarist

Christone "Kingfish" Ingram

Instrumentalist – Harmonica

Jason Ricci

Instrumentalist – Horn

Vanessa Collier

Instrumentalist – Piano (Pinetop Perkins Award)

Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne

Instrumentalist – Vocals

Ruthie Foster

Washington D.C. Chapter Dinner & Conversation Answers "Can We Have Rhythm Without the Blues?"

Johnny Cash in 1994
Johnny Cash in 1994.

Photo: Beth Gwinn/Redferns

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10 Ways Johnny Cash Revived His Career With 'American Recordings'

On the 30th anniversary of Johnny Cash's 'American Recordings' — the first of a six-part series that continued through 2010 — take a look at how the albums rejuvenated the country icon's career and helped his legacy live on after his passing.

GRAMMYs/Apr 26, 2024 - 05:05 pm

It's fair to say that the 1980s hadn't been particularly kind to country legend Johnny Cash. Once considered the Don of the Nashville scene, the singer/songwriter suddenly found himself dropped by Columbia Records, recording terrible parody songs (remember "The Chicken in Black"?), and addicted to painkillers after a bizarre accident in which he was kicked by an ostrich.

But as the new decade approached, Cash's reputation gradually started to recover. A 1988 tribute album, 'Til Things Are Brighter, alerted a much younger indie generation of his catalog of classics. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. And then arguably the biggest band in the world at the time, U2, invited him to take lead vocals on Zooropa's post-apocalyptic closer "The Wanderer." The scene was set for a triumphant comeback, and on 1994's American Recordings, the Man in Black duly obliged.

The Rick Rubin-produced album was far from a one-off. Cash delivered three American follow-ups in his lifetime (1996's Unchained, 2000's Solitary Man, and 2002's The Man Comes Around). And two posthumous volumes (2006's A Hundred Highways, 2010's Ain't No Grave)  further bridged the gap between his statuses as country outlaw and elder statesman — and helped further his legacy as one of country's all-time greats.

As the first American Recordings installment celebrates its 30th anniversary, here's a look at how the series deservedly rejuvenated the career of an American recording legend.

It United Him With A New Muse 

Best known for his pioneering work with Run-D.M.C., Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy, Rick Rubin seemed an unusual fit for a sixty-something country singer whose glory days were considered decades behind him. But left spellbound by Cash's performance at a Bob Dylan anniversary gig in 1992, the superproducer offered to make the Nashville legend a superstar once more.

Cash took some persuading, but eventually agreed to join forces on the assurance he'd be in the creative driving seat, and a new unlikely dream team was born. Rubin lent his talents to all six volumes of American Recordings — co-producing the middle two with Cash's son John Carter Cash – and won the first GRAMMY of his career for his efforts. The Def Jam co-founder would also later work his magic with several other '60s heroes including Neil Diamond, Yusuf and Neil Young.

It Saw Cash Lean Into Contemporary Music More Than Ever

Cash had never been averse to tackling contemporary material. He covered Bruce Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman" in 1983, just a year after it appeared on The Boss' Nebraska. But the American Recordings series saw the Man in Black embrace the sounds du jour like never before, whether the grunge of Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage," electro-blues of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," or most famously, industrial rock of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt."

On paper, this could have been nothing short of a disaster, the sign of an aging artist desperately latching onto a much younger musical generation in a transparent bid for relevancy. But instead, Cash elevates the Gen X classics into modern hymns, his sonorous voice injecting a sense of gravitas and Rubin's production stripping things back to their bare but compelling essentials. Far from an embarrassing grandad act, this was the sound of a man respectfully making the source material his own.

It Returned Cash To The Charts 

Cash had reached the lower end of the Billboard 200 in the '80s as part of supergroups The Highwaymen and Class of '55. But you had to go all the way back to 1976's One Piece at a Time to find his last entry as a solo artist. The American Recordings series, however, slowly but surely restored the Man in Black to his former chart glories.

Indeed, while its first two volumes charted at numbers 110 and 170 respectively, the third peaked at a slightly more impressive 88 and the fourth at 22, his highest position since 1970's Hello, I'm Johnny Cash. The posthumous fifth entry, meanwhile, went all the way to No. 1, remarkably the first time ever the country legend had achieved such a feat with a studio effort (live album At San Quentin had previously topped the charts in 1971).

"Hurt" also became Cash's first solo US country hit in 14 years in 2003. And while it only landed at No. 56 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, it remains Cash's most-streamed song to date with over 600 million streams on Spotify alone.

It Included Masterful Collaborators 

As well as handing over the producer reins to Rubin, Cash also surrounded himself with some of the rock world's finest musicians. Tom Petty, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, and Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood all lent their considerable talents to Unchained. Sheryl Crow and Will Oldham did the same on Solitary Man, while Nick Cave, Fiona Apple and Don Henley joined him in the studio on The Man Comes Around.

But Cash also kept things more traditional by recruiting fellow country legend Merle Haggard, 'fifth Beatle'Billy Preston, and "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" songwriter Jack Clement, while the presence of wifeJune Carter Cash and son John made the third American Recordings something of a family affair.

It Went Back To Basics 

While American Recordings was, in many respects, Cash's most forward-thinking album, it wasn't afraid to keep one foot in the past, either. For one, the star recorded most of its first volume in his Tennessee cabin armed with only a guitar, a throwback to his 1950s beginnings with first producer Sam Phillips.

Cash also trawled through his own back catalog for inspiration, re-recording several tracks he believed had unfairly gone under the radar including 1955 single "Mean Eyed Cat," murder ballad "Delia's Gone" from 1962's The Sound of Johnny Cash, and "I'm Leaving Now" from 1985's Rainbow.

It Proved He Was Still A Masterful Songwriter…

Although Cash's unlikely covers grabbed most of the attention, the American Recordings series showed that his stellar songwriting skills remained intact throughout his later years, too. "Meet Me in Heaven," for example, is a beautifully poignant tribute to the older brother who died at just 15, while the folksy "Let the Train Blow the Whistle" added to Cash's arsenal of railroad anthems.

"Drive On," meanwhile, is worthy of gracing any Best Of compilation, a powerful lament to those who came back from the Vietnam War with both emotional and physical scars ("And even now, every time I dream/ I hear the men and the monkeys in the jungle scream").

…And Still A Master Interpreter 

As well as putting new spins on his own songs and various contemporary rock favorites, Cash further displayed both his interpretive and curatorial skills by covering a variety of spirituals, standards and pop hits first released during his commercial heyday.

The likes of early 19th century gospel "Wayfaring Stranger," wartime favorite "We'll Meet Again," and Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" may have been firmly in Cash's wheelhouse. But more leftfield choices such as Loudon Wainwright III's offbeat morality tale "The Man Who Couldn't Cry" proved that even when outside his comfort zone, he could stamp his own identity with aplomb.

It Made Him An Unlikely MTV Star 

Cash was 62 years old when American Recordings hit the shelves — not exactly a prime age for MTV play. Yet thanks to some inspired creative decisions, the career-reviving series spawned two videos that received regular rotation on the network. Firstly, "Delia's Gone" caught attention for two major reasons: it was directed by Anton Corbijn, the man renowned for his long-running creative partnership with Depeche Mode, and it starred Kate Moss, the world's biggest supermodel at the time, as the titular victim.  

Then nine years later, Cash picked up six nominations — winning Best Cinematography — at the MTV Video Music Awards thanks to Mark Romanek's emotionally devastating treatment for "Hurt." Interspersing clips of the clearly fragile country singer at the rundown Museum of Cash with footage from his earlier days and artistic shots of decaying fruits and flowers, the promo perfectly embodied the transient nature of life. And it had the capacity to reduce even the hardest of hearts to tears.

It Added To His GRAMMY Haul 

Cash won almost as many GRAMMYs with his American Recordings series as he had during the previous 40 years of his career. The Man in Black first added to his trophy collection in 1995 when the first volume won Best Contemporary Folk Album. This was the first time he'd been recognized at the ceremony for his musical talents since the June Carter Cash duet "If I Were A Carpenter" won Best Country Performance for a Duo or Group with Vocal back in 1971  

Three years later, Unchained was crowned Best Country Album. And after picking up a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999, Cash won 2001's Best Male Country Vocal Performance for "Solitary Man," then again in the same Category for "Give My Love to Rose"in 2003. He posthumously won two more GRAMMYs for Best Short Form Video, in 2004 for "Hurt" and in 2008 for "God's Gonna Cut You Down." In total, the American Recordings series won Cash six more GRAMMYs, bringing his overall count to 13. 

It Was A Powerful Epitaph

In 1997, Cash was told he'd just 18 months to live after being misdiagnosed with neurodegenerative condition Shy-Drager syndrome (later changed to autonomic neuropathy). He ended up outliving this prognosis by a good four years, but during this period, he lost the love of his life and was forced to record his swansong in-between lengthy stints in the hospital.  

Little wonder, therefore, that the American Recordings series is defined by the theme of mortality: see "The Man Comes Around," a biblical ode to the Grim Reaper ("And I looked, and behold a pale horse/ And his name that sat on him was death, and hell followed with him"), Death Row anthem "The Mercy Seat," and funeral favorite "Danny Boy." As with David Bowie's Blackstar, Cash was able to reflect on his impermanence in his own terms in a sobering, yet compelling manner that continues to resonate decades on. 

8 Artists Bringing Traditional Country Music Back: Zach Top, Randall King, Emily Nenni & More On Why "What's Old Becomes Beloved Again"

Wyatt Flores Press Photo 2024
Wyatt Flores

Photo: Matt Paskert

interview

Wyatt Flores On Speaking His Truth & Using Fame For Good: "I Want People To See That I've Gone Through It"

On his new EP, 'Half Life,' Wyatt Flores tackles everything from mental health to his complicated relationship with fame and religion. Ahead of his Stagecoach Festival debut, the rising country star discusses expressing "wherever I am in my heart."

GRAMMYs/Apr 26, 2024 - 03:42 pm

When Wyatt Flores released his second EP, Half Life, on April 19, he ended his celebratory Instagram post with one simple wish: "I hope these songs make you feel something."

That's been Flores' mantra since the rising country singer first began releasing music just three years ago. Hailed as one of the genre's most honest new stars, Flores speaks his truth in his red dirt music, on stage, and on social media. As Half Life showcases, he's unafraid to broach life's toughest topics, from suicidal thoughts on "Devil" to a complicated relationship with religion on "I Believe In God."

"I like to keep it very based on what I felt, and just try and go for that emotion," Flores says of his music. "If you can somehow captivate [listeners] in the story and make them feel the emotion through the song, then you've done your job. I guess that's all I'm after."

His unabashed vulnerability has made his music resonate widely — and fast. In 2023, Flores went from playing for hundreds to thousands in a matter of months, garnering more than 325 million global streams and more than 13 million TikTok likes along the way. He consistently uses his rapidly growing platform to champion self-care and mental health, even taking a brief tour hiatus in February to get himself back on track.

Two months later, Flores assures that he's feeling rejuvenated and healthier than ever, sparking some happier tunes that even caught him by surprise (more on that later). He'll spend the summer playing a mix of headlining shows, festival stages and a few supporting slots for Mitski, first kicking things off with his debut at Stagecoach on April 26.

As Flores gears up for tour, he sat down with GRAMMY.com during some time off in his native Oklahoma to chat about his remarkable rise, the complexities of being so vulnerable, and how he feels like he's getting the "best of both worlds."

Do you remember the first show that you were like, "What is happening?"

Yeah, it was Asheville, North Carolina. It was either the last week of April last year or the first week of May, I can't quite remember. But that was my first ever sold-out headline show. I think the venue cap was like 550, and they were screaming so loud that I got off stage and I was like, "Did anyone feel like there was a trash can going off in their ear?" And then my bass player, Bill, was like, "No, that's the last time you'll hear that frequency." 

That was where everything changed. It kind of started making me realize how real this was getting. Then, everywhere we went, [it was a] sold-out crowd, and they're excited as all get out. I literally thought that I was living a dream. 

I played at, you know, the s—iest hole in the walls you could ever imagine. I just thought I was gonna be there forever. Honestly, I was still having fun doing that. But I just couldn't believe the dramatic change that happened.

At what point did it actually feel real?

It was probably when we played Dallas [in December of] last year. That was the biggest room that we'd ever played. I was like, 3,000 people bought tickets to show up to my show. And then I just kind of had to kind of process like what was actually going on. I kept questioning it for the longest time, but that night it was just different.

We had just played in Fort Worth, like, three months [before that], and that was 600 people. So when we played Dallas, that was when I just looked at the crowd and I was like, Okay, this is it.

That's interesting, because you had to cancel a stretch of shows not long after that. Was that kind of all correlating — taking it in, but being overwhelmed from all of it?

Yeah, because there's a lot of things that went on in my life that I never took the time to process, and that was one of the first things — being like, This is my life from now on. And I think that's what I liked about the Life Lessons project so much, was giving listeners an inside view on what it looks like to be on this side of the fence. Because everyone thinks that it's gotta be the most wild thing to be an artist, but I don't think they realize what comes with it. 

I'm still sitting here going, I shouldn't be on this interview with you. I don't deserve it. Like, I don't have the cool style, I show up in sweatshirts and s—ty Adidas shoes. I don't put myself on a pedestal.

I've never wanted to become something I'm not, and that's kind of been the hard point. Because, you know, you got folks from the hometown [saying], "Don't forget who you are!" And then all of a sudden you get lost in all of it. And then you're sitting there going, Do I even know who I am? 

Making some healthier changes kind of opened up some other wounds that I bottled up. I never processed my grandpa's death, and at the same time that that was all going down, I was also firing management — which, they say in Nashville, the manager should be the one person that you do trust. 

I took one week off so I could come back for [my grandpa's] funeral, and had to delay some shows there. And then I was homeless for two weeks from another situation. But I was like, Nope, I'm just gonna work my ass off. I'm just gonna show up, do what I need to do. And I never took the time to actually look at anything that had happened. And that's kind of where the falloff went, because I was just trying to survive the chaos.

I'm sure it's hard being in the spotlight period while  going through so much  at the same time.

For a while, there were certain things that I did not like about myself. [I felt like I was] changing personalities. I know most people can't see it, but that was something that I was struggling with. Everyone was seeing how happy I was through social media — because I'm not afraid to post the silly s— that goes down on the road; me being a jackass in the van or something like that — but then people expected that from me. 

I had to fully come to terms with, wherever I am in my heart, that's who I am right there in that moment. I don't have to portray this image that people see just because we post it on social media.

I also think it's amazing to have the platform you do and be so honest about how you're feeling. Because it's probably healing for you, but also going to be healing for the people who see it — even if it's challenging and really personal to admit.

I put down my phone for a really long time, which was one of the best things ever. [Laughs.] I came back and I went through my DMs. People were like, "Thank you for saying something because I finally had the encouragement to say something to my wife" or something else. I'm glad that it gave people the encouragement to speak up, because if I don't, then how will they? 

I look at my fans, and I'm blessed. There's no better fan base, they're the sweetest people ever. They are diehard fans, but they talk to me like I'm their friend, like they've known me forever. For them to trust someone enough to say something [about] how they feel or what's going on in their lives, that means the absolute world to me.

Clearly that means that what you bring to the table is what your fans are also going to bring to the table for you.

One of the things that I've been trying to work through, is realizing that I can listen to their problems, but I can't take their problems with me. And that was something that I had to learn. I was like, I can't do that to myself, or I'm gonna plummet.

There was a time when we were in Colorado, and someone had sent me these messages [about this girl], and I ended up looking [her] up. She was an eighth grade girl, and the last video she had posted on TikTok was of "Please Don't Go." She'd committed suicide a month after she had posted that. Her mom was trying to raise attention towards bullying and things like that. 

It was hard for us. But we had to look at it through a new perspective. And it's like, we can't change someone's decision, as badly as you want to. And we try and look at it from this perspective of, How long did that song keep them here? Time is valuable, and even if it was for another month, at least it kept them here just a little bit longer, kept them through the fight. Even though you don't always win.

We're not just out here playing music. I still love the party songs. "West of Tulsa" is always fun to look out in the crowd, and they're having a great time. But we're not just playing music because we're here to distract people from their problems. We're lucky enough that we do get to save lives, and we get to do it through music. But it's also one of those things where I'm sitting there going, I'm a 22-year-old kid from Oklahoma, and I have this power. Am I going to use it correctly?

Now that you know that your music is so powerful to so many people, has it changed the way that you approach your songwriting?

A little bit. You know, the songs that I write are songs that I feel. I'm ADHD as all get out, so when I show up to write, it's whatever I'm feeling that day. But yeah, there's a little bit in the back of my head that says, Watch out for something like this, you don't want to say the wrong message here

I want to write these songs that are sad, that are very dark, and lost is kind of the feeling. Because I want people to see that I've gone through it, so that way, they can get a better understanding that they're not the only one. 

My inspiration was to be the artist that had those songs that kind of pulled me through my stuff. There's all sorts of jokes and like memes about when the song doesn't hit you hard enough the first time so you play it again, or, like, when you're sitting in a vehicle after you've already gotten home but you sit there until the song ends. That was always kind of a goal for me. I was like, I want to be that song that kind of helps them get through the next day. 

That's the way I kind of look at it when I play these shows. And I sit back and I look at the crowd, and I'm like, I get to be a part of y'all's lives every single day, and that is the coolest thing that I've ever done.

It's funny, there's always that interview question like, "What are your goals?" but it sounds like you've already accomplished the main one. 

Oh, absolutely. I've been having to find new goals because I've lived my dream. Like, if I died tomorrow, I'd hang my hat proudly. I've helped people, I've played all the venues — well, I guess I haven't played Red Rocks yet. That's coming up, though.

I'm still thinking, because it's just now finally hit me that, like, You've kind of done the damn thing. So it's like, What do you want to do now? I have all these wild ideas. I usually throw out some out of pocket s— and then I let someone else come up with if it's gonna work or not. My business manager hates me. [Laughs.]

Were you raised to be so connected with your feelings, or was it just kind of an innate thing for you?

I think I always felt out of place wherever I was. I was always kind of the weird kid. My friends hated me because I started talking about sappy s—. I'd want to have deep, meaningful conversations and sometimes they'd be like, "Would you just shut up?" [Laughs.]

But what I realized is that I'm very big on connection. At some point, not fitting in and being different kind of all changed for me. I was like, I can't change it, so I might as well be it.

Have you ever questioned how honest you're being in your music? 

For the most part, I don't try and hold back. In some ways, it is scary, but in other ways, it's kind of just telling your truth so people don't get shocked by something that you do.

For the first time, I'm writing happier songs. And I'm skeptical to see how people take that. I mean, I've had Life Lessons and stuff like that, but yeah, this is definitely a weird time in my life where I'm like, I'm writing happy songs, and I don't even know how to feel about it. Now, I'm like, How do I share happiness? How do I contain that idea, and that emotion, and put it into a song so it comes out to the listener and they feel it?

You're allowed to be happy! And with everything that's been happening for you lately, I'm not surprised you're happy.

[Fans] always say "We made the right person famous." It's been two short years of really doing this thing. And we're blessed.

I freakin' love playing live, I just had other things going on in the background that I never took time [to process]. For a while, I wanted to blame a lot of things that wasn't it. And then, I went to Onsite [Workshops, a therapy, counseling and wellness retreat center in Tennessee] for like a week and got my head back to normal. 

Playing live is what makes it all worth it. I knew that I was going to have to work for this, and I'm getting to see the fruits of my labor. I'm finally getting some time off. I'm getting to actually spend some quality time, but I at least now know how to have quality time in the healthiest way. Because for a while, I couldn't shut the other brain off. I'd come home and I was still somewhere else. 

I can't believe that I get the best of both worlds. That usually doesn't happen where you get your cake and eat it too. S—, I might go fishing later! I get to be on the road, play to thousands of people, and then I get to go fishing? I think the only thing that's missing is I don't have a boat. Man, I just might have to weld me one.  

Meet Charles Wesley Godwin, The Rising Country Singer Who's Turning "A Very Human Story" Into Stardom