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

Tanner Adell Press Photo 2024
Tanner Adell

Photo: Chase Foster

interview

Tanner Adell's Big Year: The Country Newcomer Talks Stagecoach, "BLACKBIIRD," & Meeting Her Childhood Idols

As Tanner Adell continues making waves in country music, she shares some of the most monumental moments from her career so far — from featuring on Beyoncé's critically acclaimed 'COWBOY CARTER' to making space for Black women at the CMT Music Awards.

GRAMMYs/Jun 6, 2024 - 02:48 pm

With one bold tweet, Tanner Adell's life changed.

"As one of the only Black girls in the country music scene, I hope Bey decides to sprinkle me with a dash of her magic for a collab," she wrote, minutes after Beyoncé premiered "TEXAS HOLD 'EM" and "16 CARRIAGES" during this year's Super Bowl in February.

At first, Adell was mocked for her pitch. "You're trying too hard, love," one user said. Another chimed in, "Baby, that album is finished with all the songs cleared. I don't know about this one. Maybe, open for the tour," another user remarked.

But she wasn't bothered by the chatter: "Those people said I look desperate, I'm like, 'You must not know me, b—!" Adell reveals to GRAMMY.com with a hearty laugh. 

Confidence is the inner core of the Tanner Adell ethos. And her boldness paid off because shortly after when Beyoncé approached her to feature on COWBOY CARTER.

In Adell's first music release of 2024, she appeared alongside Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy, and Reyna Roberts in Beyoncé's cover of "BLACKBIIRD" by The Beatles. It was a full-circle moment for Adell in more ways than one, as her father used to sing the song to her as a child. Little did she know, decades later, she would popularize the track's backstory — the plight of Black women in the American South — alongside one of her heroes.

But before Adell became one of Beyoncé's songbirds, she was also the Buckle Bunny. On the 11-track mixtape, Adell traced the provocative tales of an acrylic nail-wearing, lasso-wielding heartbreaker. But for every Black girl that listens, it's more than a country project. It's also a reminder that it's okay to be feminine and girly, just like Shania Twain, Carrie Underwood or Taylor Swift.

Among her rodeo of exciting firsts, Adell tacks another on June 8, when she makes her debut at Nashville's Nissan Stadium during CMA Fest. She'll perform on the Platform Stage at the stadium; the next day, she'll play a set at the Good Molecules Reverb Stage outside of Bridgestone Arena.

Below, hear from Adell about her most memorable firsts thus far, from having her debut daytime television performance on "The Jennifer Hudson Show" to bonding with Gayle King behind the scenes at Stagecoach Music Festival.

Seeing Her Breakthrough Single, "Buckle Bunny," Have A Second Life

I released "Buckle Bunny" on the Buckle Bunny EP in July 2023. I actually teased it on social media first. Almost nine months before that, I had gone super viral with it. It was doing incredibly well, so my plans were to release it in January or February of last year. But, I ended up signing a record deal in December of 2022. There were plans for it at that time, but the timeline kept getting pushed back. It turned into a fight to get that song back into my hands, which was what prompted me to go independent. Eventually, I was able to work with my label, shake hands, and mutually part ways.

I started this year as an independent artist with this song that everybody loves. It's become a huge part of my brand, but it's really my life story. People might think it's a dumb song that was easy to write, but I was called a "buckle bunny." As a teenager growing up between Los Angeles and Star Valley, Wyoming, I was into glam country, and "Buckle Bunny" is the pinnacle of that. 

"Buckle Bunny" was my first single that charted. I felt like I finally had broken through that invisible box that Nashville put me in as a country musician. It was me saying, I'm not going to follow any rules. I'm going to be as true to myself as possible.

We, as Black women, have been fighting our whole lives. We've been fighting for space. I'm purposely trying to bring softness into the picture, allowing women who listen to my music to know that it's okay to feel that way. We don't always have to have our walls up.

"Buckle Bunny" is aggressively confident, but I think that's the door to softness. You have to be self-assured to let your walls down. My newest single, "Whiskey Blues," is my next step into that. I have another song on my social media, "Snakeskin," that people want me to release. "Buckle Bunny" is like the girl who protects those softer moments.

In a way, I look at all of this as a relationship between Tanner Adell, the artist, and Tanner, the person. For me, Tanner Adell is the buckle bunny. Then, you have Tanner, who's on the inside, writing all of these songs.

Serving A Bold Fashion Statement On Her First Major Red Carpet

I wore Bantu knots! I've always loved Bantu knots in all styles, the really small ones and the larger ones. There were ideas about whether I should do a certain number of them that was significant to me in some way.

I work very closely with Bill Wackermann, who was the CEO of Wilhemina Models. He does a lot of styling and has a close relationship with my manager. So, my manager was like, "You would love him!" At the time, I was trying to hone in on what myself is. What's the message I'm trying to convey through my fashion, hair, and beauty? 

Bill sat down with me, and I told him I wanted Natalia Fedner to do my dress, which is that stretchy chain metal dress. Originally, I thought I would do my long blonde hair, but Bill was the one who told me, "This is your first major red carpet as an invited artist. Think about what you want your hair to say." As a Black woman, our hair tells 1,000 stories with whatever it is, and the lightbulb went off in my head.

I knew I wanted my hair to say everything I needed to say without having to say anything at all. I also knew there would be a lot of people who didn't know the significance behind it or just thought it was some extreme hairstyle.

I've looked very deeply into my heritage. It turns out I have a bit of Bantu heritage in my DNA. I thought that was so cool because I do love the knots so much.

The CMT Awards were a big thing at my school, Utah Valley University. Everyone would get together in the dorms and watch the show. It's crazy that a couple years ago, I was watching it, and I'm here now. I feel very respected and loved. People I've looked up to would come up to me, and I was like, "I'm a huge fan." And they're like, "No! I listened to you."

I got to meet Gayle King, who I absolutely love. I remember watching her from afar while she was doing "CBS Mornings." She saw me from across the room, and I kid you not, in the middle of her interview, she started walking towards me. She was like, "I just want to tell you that you're so beautiful. The Bantu knots are stunning." That was my favorite moment of the night.

I also had the chance to see Tiera Kennedy. She's so sweet. We got matching blackbird tattoos before that. Being on the red carpet for the first time, it was comforting to see a familiar face. It really reinforces that idea that I belong here.

Being A Part Of COWBOY CARTER

So, I'm adopted. I have four siblings. We're all biracial, but our adoptive parents are both white. Obviously, my dad is a white man with five Black children. My parents always wanted me to understand that I am a Black woman, and he was very educational when it came to music. He taught me about the Black female power players and the buzz in the industry. But The Beatles were his favorite. So, when I finally told them the news, my dad immediately got choked up. He told me that "Blackbird" was one of his favorite Beatles songs.

My dad isn't the best with words when it comes to expressing his emotions, especially in front of people. He's a quiet, reserved dude. So, he eventually texts me, sending me screenshots about the meaning behind "Blackbird." The reason why it was his favorite song was because he had Black girls, and he told me, "This is special. This is not a burden to carry, but it might be a bit of weight on your shoulders. Keep your head up high and walk knowing that this is why he wrote this song."

I can remember going to a recital as a kid and being so nervous, but my dad was so confident and excited about my abilities. Was that strategic? Was it quiet strength? Maybe. It feels like this song has been a part of my whole life. So, to be on it, on such a massive album, feels very divine.

The whole process was a surprise. It took a few weeks to set in. But I always knew I would work with [Beyoncé], and I always said it's a matter of "when," not if. 

On the day of the Super Bowl, I saw that black-and-white picture of her, and I thought it looked a lot like a photoshoot that I took the week before. Let me make a tweet, just to put it out there. I don't know — she's magical! She has her way of knowing everything that's going on all the time. 

I think that tweet has almost 10 million views. It was fun to go back to that tweet to see the people who were supporting me. And also getting to say "I told you" to the people who didn't. It kicked off a Renaissance — pun intended.

Performing At Her First Stagecoach Music Festival

I have bad social anxiety, and I get nervous in front of crowds and people. So, festivals were never something that interested me, but Stagecoach was always one I felt like I could go to. And I was not disappointed.

I had the first slot of the day, which is a s—ty slot for anyone, but you have to pay your dues in country music. It's how you build your cred with these festivals, to show you're a hard worker and will perform like you're at a sold-out show in Madison Square Garden. And I did.

Mentally, I prepared for no one. I told myself it was okay if nobody came, and I'll perform like I always do. I'll figure out where the camera is and perform it for the jumbotron, so if no one comes to the pit, the people watching the livestream will have a great show. 

Well, I didn't have an empty pit! People showed the f— up and out. I heard people in line thought they were going to miss it because the gates opened late. Within the first 10 minutes, the VIP pit was half-filled with people screaming and running in their sweet little cowboy boots and hats. That never happens at Stagecoach or Coachella, but it's a testament to the relationship I built within my listeners. It was eye-opening for me. I don't think I'm ever going to play to a dead crowd again.

Before, Levi's reached out and said I was the first artist they wanted to collaborate with for Stagecoach. So, they custom-made my outfit. I told them I have these ribbons, inspired by my mom, who was a rodeo queen. I also told them if they can't incorporate them, I probably won't do it. But they loved it! And it was special because it came back to my mom. She was a winner, so when I wear the ribbons, I'm also a winner.

My mom has competed in over 1,000 competitions and probably places in half of those. In Wyoming, we had a big wall, covered in those IQHA (International Quarter Horse Association) ribbons. She gave me a strong sense of competition.

Making Her Debut On Daytime TV

I have overcome very serious, debilitating stage fright. I don't get nervous anymore, and performing live is my favorite thing. But I was not prepared for what a television show taping looks like.

We had a soundcheck, and there were a bunch of suits in groups of threes and fours standing everywhere. There were all these cameras and lights. Then, I start realizing I'm about to meet J. Hud, who I made little custom Crocs for. It was a dream come true.

I know a lot about her story. We have very different upbringings, but we're similar in the sense of trying to stand on ground that isn't steady. I see her as someone who is a great example. She's reached so many different avenues. For me to be able to sit down with an EGOT winner is a great honor. 

I kind of like to keep my manifestations as quiet as possible. I don't tell anybody anything, but an EGOT is something I wouldn't mind having, you know?

I look at her as a woman who exceeded greatness. So, it was just amazing — and for my first television debut. I felt like this is right for me.

Why 2024 Is The Year Women In Country Music Will Finally Have Their Moment

CMA Fest 2024 Playlist Hero
(L-R) Kelsea Ballerini, Dalton Dover, Chase Matthew, Jelly Roll, Ella Langley, Dasha, Avery Anna, Breland

Photos (L-R): Jason Kempin/Getty Images for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Jason Kempin/Getty Images for BRELAND & Friends, Jason Kempin/Getty Images for iHeartRadio, Amy E. Price/Getty Images, Jason Kempin/Getty Images, Brynn Osborn/CBS via Getty Images, Jason Davis/Getty Images for SiriusXM, Jason Kempin/Getty Images for BRELAND & Friends

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Get Ready For CMA Fest 2024: Listen To A Playlist By Dasha, Ella Langley, Chase Matthew, Avery Anna, & Dalton Dover

As country stars and fans flock to Nashville for CMA Fest, five of the lineup's most exciting acts curated a playlist of the songs they're looking forward to hearing live — from Shaboozey's "A Bar Song (Tipsy)" to Lainey Wilson's "Watermelon Moonshine."

GRAMMYs/Jun 5, 2024 - 02:25 pm

For more than 50 years, the Country Music Association has hosted the genre's biggest annual party in Nashville, Tennessee: CMA Fest. Originally dubbed Fan Fair, what began as a 5,000-person celebration of country music has turned into a four-day festival that draws an estimated 90,000 people each day. And with the genre being at an all-time high, the 2024 iteration of CMA Fest might just be the most thrilling yet.

The 51st annual CMA Fest will take over Nashville from June 6-9, with upwards of 300 country artists performing. As rising stars — and returning CMA Fest performers — Avery Anna, Dalton Dover and Chase Matthew will tell you, the magic of the weekend affair has always come down to the fans.

"I love the connection that the festival provides between artists and fans," Anna says. Dover adds, "Whether it's being reunited with those I've met in the past or getting some time to say hello to all the new faces in the crowd, it's just so special to be able to connect with everyone over our love for country music."

Matthew, who grew up in Nashville, has been part of both sides of CMA Fest. "I've seen CMA Fest grow to become this epic event that every music fan should experience," he says. "It's a great opportunity for fans to see and interact with their favorite country stars, as well as discover new artists they may not have had the opportunity to hear yet."

Even Dasha, who will be experiencing her first CMA Fest this year, knows just how important it is to any country music artist or fan: "CMA Fest is such an iconic celebration of country music."

Thanks to the runaway success of her hit "Austin," Dasha will be taking the Platform Stage at Nissan Stadium, which will highlight two budding stars each night amid performances from the genre's biggest names. "When I got that call, I got online to see the number of seats there and my jaw was on the ground," she recalls. "That'll be my biggest show to date, and I can't wait to show the people what we've got."

This year's CMA Fest also marks a first for Ella Langley, who will make her inaugural appearance on the Chevy Riverfront Stage in a "full-circle moment." And in teasing what she'll bring to her set, Langley encapsulated the energy of CMA Fest as a whole: "I hope the fans are ready for a bunch of dancing, a good message and a really good time."

As they prepped for CMA Fest 2024, Ella Langley, Dasha, Chase Matthew, Dalton Dover, and Avery Anna helped curate a playlist of songs they're excited to see — and perform — live. Whether or not you'll be heading to Nashville, jam out to tracks from Kelsea Ballerini, Sam Hunt, Cody Johnson, Zach Top, Megan Moroney, and more.

Elton John with Lion King Broadway cast in 1999
Elton John (center) with actors Paulette Ivory as 'Nala' (left) and Roger Wright as 'Simba' (right) at the opening night 'The Lion King' musical in London in 1999.

Photo: Dave Benett/Getty Images

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9 Reasons Why 'The Lion King' Is The Defining Disney Soundtrack

Thirty years after 'The Lion King: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack' was released, revisit all the ways it became Disney's ultimate musical moment, from multiple GRAMMYs to a Broadway smash.

GRAMMYs/May 31, 2024 - 05:14 pm

Following the untimely death of their regular composer Howard Ashman, who, alongside Alan Menken, had written the soundtracks for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, Walt Disney Feature Animation were forced to look elsewhere for 1994's The Lion King. As their first film ever based on an original story, and their first to consist entirely of animal characters, the Mouse House was already taking something of a gamble. And they further refused to play it safe by appointing a pop star with no prior experience of the Hollywood machine.

Luckily, the leftfield choice of British national treasure Elton John (then without his Sir title), proved to be a masterstroke. Alongside Tim Rice, the lyricist best-known for his musical theater work with Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Rocket Man delivered five instant classics. Not only did the likes of "Can You Feel The Love Tonight," "I Just Can't Wait To Be King," and "Circle of Life" perfectly help push forward the narrative, but they also helped push the film to awards glory at the Oscars and GRAMMYs, a colossal box office figure of nearly one billion dollars, and permanent residency in the pop culture landscape.

Of course, John and Rice can't take all the credit for Lion King's roaring success. Acclaimed composer Hans Zimmer also came on board to give an orchestral touch to the Shakespeare-inspired tale of an heir apparent, who after escaping his wicked uncle's clutches, returns years later to reclaim his rightful position. And professional singers Carmen Twillie, Sally Dworsky, and Kristle Edwards joined household names such as Nathan Lane, Whoopi Goldberg, and Rowan Atkinson in the recording booth, further driving the massive impact of the movie and its music.

Thirty years after it first enamored the Blockbuster generation, we take a look at how The Lion King still sits at the top of the Disney soundtrack throne.

It's Still The Biggest Selling Disney Soundtrack 

Forget The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, or the more recent musical phenomenon that is Frozen. When it comes to pure sales, the runaway Disney soundtrack leader is The Lion King. The Rice/John/Zimmer collaboration shifted nearly five million copies domestically in 1994 alone. And its impressive worldwide total is now triple that amount.

It's a figure that also places The Lion King in the top 10 best-selling soundtracks of all time. Indeed, it's Disney's only representative in the list, which includes Prince's Purple Rain, James Horner's Titanic, and Bee Gees' Saturday Night Fever, as well as the "I Will Always Love You"-featuring The Bodyguard at No. 1. (It still has a way to go to beat John's commercial peak, though. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road has reportedly sold an astonishing 20 million since its release in 1973.)

It Made GRAMMY History 

It wasn't just at the box office where Disney firmly established its second golden age. Before the release of 1989's The Little Mermaid, the Mouse House hadn't attracted GRAMMYs attention once. By the turn of the century, however, they'd racked up a remarkable 30 nominations and 17 wins — and The Lion King played a major part in this awards dominance.

In fact, it made history by becoming the first Disney winner of both Best Male Pop Vocal Performance ("Can You Feel the Love Tonight") and Best Musical Album For Children, while "Circle of Life" picked up Best Instrumental Arrangement With Accompanying Vocals, too. The Lion King also followed in the footsteps of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin by picking up the Academy Awards for both Best Original Song and Best Original Score.

It Started A Trend Of Pop Artist Composers 

While Celine Dion, Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle had all previously lent their vocals to Disney's second golden age, The Lion King was the studio's first soundtrack to give a pop star composing duties. Alongside Tim Rice, the celebrated lyricist who'd worked on Aladdin, Elton John wrote all five of the album's vocal numbers. And it was a setup that appeared to give several of his peers ideas.

Randy Newman had already picked up Academy Award nods for his composing talents on 1981's Ragtime. But it wasn't until 1995's Toy Story that the singer/songwriter began the fruitful Disney animation partnership that would also take in the Monsters Inc. and Cars franchises. In 1999, Phil Collins co-wrote and performed the entirety of Tarzan's pop soundtrack. And four years later, Carly Simon decided to get in on the Mouse House action by pulling double duty on seven songs for Piglet's Big Movie.

It Introduced Hans Zimmer To Animation 

The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado, Madagascar, and The Simpsons Movie are just a few of the hit animations to have benefitted from Hans Zimmer's Midas touch. But it wasn't until 12 years into his career that the German composer proved that his talents could be used just as effectively in the world of animation as live-action. And The Lion King was the catalyst.

Zimmer provided four instrumental pieces for the Disney phenomenon including "This Land," "To Die For," and "King of Pride Rock," also bagging two GRAMMYS, an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his efforts. And as he told Classic FM while promoting his work on the 2019 remake, he has a certain family member to thank. "My daughter was 6 years old. I'd never been able to take her to any premieres, and Dad likes to show off."

It Spawned Several Crossover Hits 

Although Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin had both spawned big Hot 100 hits (the chart-topping "Beauty and the Beast" and Dion and Bryson's "A Whole New World," respectively), The Lion King was the first Disney soundtrack to produce two. "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" reached No. 4 in the U.S. (and No.1 in Canada and France), while "Circle of Life" peaked at No. 18. Even "Hakuna Matata" saw some Billboard action, gracing both the Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks and Bubbling Under charts.

You're unlikely to ever see Elton John performing the latter – four of the film's cast members including Nathan Lane provided the vocals. But the two official singles have remained staples of both his live shows and countless compilations ever since. And they've crossed over to the Spotify age, too, with "Circle of Life" racking up103 million streams and "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" a whopping 322 million.

It Birthed Broadway's Biggest Hit 

Hitting the New Amsterdam Theatre in October 1997, The Lion King wasn't the first Disney animation to get a Broadway stage adaptation (Beauty and the Beast had opened at the Palace Theatre three years earlier) — but it remains the biggest. In fact, thanks to a run of 8,500 shows, its $1 billion-plus gross is now the highest in the theater district's history.

The Lion King has also made it around the world, picking up numerous Tony and Olivier Awards along the way. And as you'd expect, the film soundtrack's pop numbers have been just as pivotal to the theater production's success as its immersive set design, powerhouse performances, and jaw-dropping puppetry.

Those lucky enough to see the spectacle before 2010 would also have enjoyed something of a lost classic. Sung by Mufasa's hornbill advisor Zazu, the John/Rice-penned "The Morning Report" was omitted from the 1994 film but enjoyed a 13-year run in the stage show's opening act.

It Covers A Vast Range of Styles 

"The plan was that we wouldn't write the usual Broadway-style Disney score," John later wrote in his 2019 memoir, Me, about his and Rice's approach to the film. "But try and come up with pop songs that kids would like."

Indeed, while the partnership of Menken and Ashman grounded their Disney sing-alongs in the worlds of musical theater and Tin Pan Alley, the new dream team were determined to venture outside the Mouse House's comfort zone.

The Lion King OST boasts everything from carefree novelty sing-alongs ("Hakuna Matata") and emotive showstoppers ("Can You Feel The Love Tonight") to campy villain songs ("Be Prepared") and rumba rockabilly ("I Just Can't Wait To Be King"). And then there's Zimmer's instrumental pieces that typically begin with cinematic strings before building up to a Zulu choir crescendo, immediately transporting listeners to the vast landscape of Pride Rock.

It Kickstarted Elton John's Second Career 

"I sat there with a line of lyrics that began, 'When I was a young warthog,'" John told Time magazine in 1995 about the inception of The Lion King soundtrack, "and I thought, 'Has it come to this?'"

The pop legend needn't have worried. The song in question, "Hakuna Matata," might not have been his most lyrically sophisticated. But the comic interlude proved that John could put an infectious melody to literally any subject. And alongside his four other contributions, it gave him the impetus to further explore the world of musical theater.

The Brit subsequently reunited with Rice for 2000's Aida, a pop-oriented adaptation of Giuseppi Verdi's same-named opera which earned a GRAMMY for Best Musical Show Album in 2001. And then in 2005, John struck Broadway gold once again with the multiple Tony Award-winning screen-to-stage transfer of ballet drama Billy Elliot. That same year, he also teamed up with regular collaboratorBernie Taupin on the score for Lestat, a musical version of Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles.

It Formed Part Of The 2019 Remake 

Proof of just how well The Lion King soundtrack has endured came in 2019 when Jon Favreau's live-action remake borrowed all five of its vocal numbers. The performers were different, of course — see the likes of John Oliver on "I Just Can't Wait To Be King," Beyoncé and Donald Glover on "Can You Feel The Love Tonight," and Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner on "Hakuna Matata." But while Zimmer's reimaginings gave them an additional African flavor, the songs didn't stray too far from the source material.

But even with a starrier cast and a bunch of new compositions and covers, the new Lion King OST failed to strike the same chord with the cinemagoing public, selling just a fraction of its predecessor. Even Beyoncé's flagship single "Spirit" failed to peak any higher than No. 98 on the Hot 100. Sometimes, the originals truly are the best.

How 1995 Became A Blockbuster Year For Movie Soundtracks

Shaboozey Press Photo 2024
Shaboozey

Photo: Daniel Prakopcyk

interview

Shaboozey On His New Album, Beyoncé & Why He'll Never Be A "Stereotypical" Artist

After Beyoncé introduced Shaboozey to a global audience via 'COWBOY CARTER,' his genre-shattering third album arrives on the wings of his own international smash, "A Bar Song (Tipsy)" and makes a declaration: 'Where I've Been, Isn't Where I'm Going.'

GRAMMYs/May 31, 2024 - 03:40 pm

The last two months have been monumental for Shaboozey. On March 29, Beyoncé fans around the world embraced his two guest collaborations on her COWBOY CARTER album, "SPAGHETTII" and "SWEET HONEY BUCKIIN'" — and they were instantly interested in what else the Nigerian-American singer had to offer. According to his label, EMPIRE, Spotify listens of Shaboozey's music (including his first two albums, 2018's Lady Wrangler and 2022's Cowboys Live Forever, Outlaws Never Die) rose by 1000 percent after COWBOY CARTER dropped.

Six weeks later, his growing fandom sent his breakthrough single, "A Bar Song (Tipsy)," to No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country chart — ironically, dethroning Queen Bey's "Texas Hold 'Em" in the process. The song instantly proved to have crossover appeal, also peaking at No. 3 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 chart, along with reaching the top spot on pop charts in Australia, Canada, Norway, and Sweden.

With his third album, Where I've Been, Isn't Where I'm Going, the man born Collins Chibueze is eager for audiences new and old to get a deeper look into his ever-evolving artistry, which he's been honing for more than a decade. He leans into country and the soundtrack of the open road on "Highway" and "Vegas," while also tapping into his talent as an MC on "Drink Don't Need No Mix" with Texas rapper BigXthaPlug. He displays a softer side, too, with tracks like "My Fault," an apologetic and pleading country ballad performed with Noah Cyrus, and "Steal Her From Me," which finds Shaboozey smoldering with his own Southern slow jam.

Shaboozey's massive global recognition may be fresh, but he's here to remind listeners that he's not a new artist. In a candid interview with GRAMMY.com, the singer discusses how he's put in a decade of hard work in order to appear to be an overnight success.

You've topped the country charts as well as pop charts around the world. Do you think we are witnessing a more welcoming era in country music right now?

I think it's definitely a lot more welcoming. All these genres of music now, just because of the internet age and the access to information — like, now I can go watch Tubi, which has thousands of Western movies, and then Spotify, I can jump from listening to a Townes Van Zandt album or a Leonard Cohen album, and then I can go play Future, you know what I mean?

And then I can jump from them, and go listen to The Marías, who are friends of mine. I can listen to some indie rock music, and then I can listen to some Fred again.. or something like that. So having all that at your fingertips, I think, it's allowed for some interesting combinations in all genres of music.

I think we're the generation of paint splatter! I do think it is very welcoming. As artists we are able to connect. We can have our own micro communities. There's not just one way to connect with people now, there are so many other ways. It's different out there now, it's really different.

You're releasing your second album with EMPIRE — how has the company helped you to develop?

EMPIRE has been super awesome. I was signed to Republic for a while, for a year or two, and I saw some article where it talked about Universal partnering with EMPIRE to handle some distribution stuff. I remember talking to my manager at the time, and being like, "We should go there!"

Major labels can get pretty cluttered. Sometimes they just don't have the bandwidth to develop acts that aren't going to take off in a couple weeks or a month or a quarter. They have these quarterlies they have to meet.

So for an artist like me, who is — a lot of people like to describe me as disruptive. It's weird to describe yourself as that. I'm just being me, and people are like, "That's disruptive." But for someone like me, who's like that, it's very important for me to be innovative and push things, and change the way people consume.

I never came in the game wanting to be stereotypical, or just your usual artist. I came in just trying to be like, Man, I love art. I love being creative and that's what I am. Sometimes that's hard to package to everyone. It's like, what is it? For major labels, sometimes, they love to be like, this is pop, this is country, this is just that.

And so for EMPIRE to bring me into what they had going on, and to stick with me within these three or four years I've been with them, knowing that there has been a lot of ups and downs. There've been a lot of [times] that we thought were going to do something that [we] didn't. Because it's a process with artistry, it doesn't happen overnight. They say it takes 10 years to have an overnight success, and it's true.

Your new album flows so well. Was it written to be taken in as one complete piece?

I'm a lover of a concept album. I love film, I love stories, I love payoffs. I love the hero's journey, they call it.

There is a way to tell a story in a three-act structure. And within those structures you have your rising action, you have your hero's call to action. They lead the world, you have your climax, and then you have, was the hero changed? Did they get the thing they were looking for at the end of it?

I'm a huge fan of film, huge on concepts, world building. I want something to feel immersive, so arrangement is big to me.

But before, I used to be super picky about [ensuring that] everything needs to connect, and I had to learn to let that go and just know that that's a part of me as an artist. As I create, I'm telling these stories naturally, so I stopped being too hard on myself about things needing to connect because that would cripple me at certain points. But now, again, I'm just learning how to let it go, and let it come naturally. It's cool to see that people are still saying with this project that there's still a concept there. And I'm like, oh, there is still a concept there. There is still a story.

My last project [Cowboys Live Forever, Outlaws Never Die] was super inspired by western films. Old western films, like, spaghetti westerns, and the whole nature of outlaw, just like period piece western culture. So I was huge on everything needing to feel like it was period. It needed to feel like this 1800s western, and this Black outlaw and his gang.

Obviously, I wanted the [visual] content to reflect that. And then you're realizing…  Wait, every video shoot I'm having to rent western wardrobe and chaps? It's a lot to do all the time, you know? It was a commitment… and I don't wear that everyday, so it wasn't really 100 percent being authentically myself in that moment. It was like, I'm creating a character and this character is separate from me.

That's hard to do all the time. Especially when it's a period piece in the 1800s and you're in 2024. So at some point I was like, hey, I want this project to be more like, I can put something on in my closet and go shoot some content, versus having to find a western town, or a world or environment that fits the 1800s.

Do you think that Beyoncé was inspired by that album?

I definitely think so. I think that's what was cool about her project, and her entry into country. I saw a lot of similarities between the things that inspired us.

What I love about country is, I really love the old stuff that really does play into the old West, the Wild West — and I saw that Beyoncé, she would talk about little things like that, too. Like the outlaws, hangmen and six shooters, and stuff like that. So you can see that she's really inspired by that stuff as well. I was told by her team that she would definitely watch a lot of old Western films through the process of doing her project.

How has the Beyhive treated you since you appeared on COWBOY CARTER?

I love that community. Seriously, that community, they've been extremely supportive from what I've seen, because Beyoncé's message has been about shining light on people that may have been overlooked. So they definitely carry out the mission of supporting the people that Beyoncé supports. They've been amazing.

I would like to say that early on with "Bar Song," they were definitely pre-saving it, they were sharing it as much as they could on Twitter, and there were a lot of posts that I was making that were getting high viewership. You could tell that there were a lot of impressions before the "Bar Song" came out. So they're great.

Did you ever think you'd be on an album with Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton?

I hoped for those things when I was creating my album. I wanted to see more hip-hop artists collaborating with people like that. I was always like, man, if I was given a $10 million budget to make a project, I'd get Willie Nelson or Hank Williams Jr. or someone like that to jump on it. I want to see something like that.

As someone whose parents grew up in Nigeria, what do you think of the global breakthrough of Nigerian artists like Burna Boy and Wizkid?

It's amazing to see. Afrobeat is definitely universal now, global like that. I think Wizkid was one of the pioneers of getting that music across the water in such a way. Burna Boy, too — if you check out his aesthetic, it's influenced by a lot of different things. He's not just wearing traditional Nigerian garments, he's wearing designer stuff, and he's got the jewelry pieces and Cartier. It's presented in a way that that style of music wasn't really represented [before] in that sense.

I lived in Nigeria for a year or two, and when I was there, there was no wifi or the internet. Now I go back and my cousins are on Netflix and on Instagram and all these places. So yeah, everything is spreading out. But as far as Afrobeat, I mean, that music is incredible, the production. It's so infectious when you hear it, but it's cool to see people of Nigerian descent, me as well, having our reach everywhere.

Davido, he reached out to me a couple days ago, he's like, "I need you to get on this record." There's a lot of Nigerian artists now that are hitting me up, and are like, "Hey, will you jump on this, will you jump on that?" I'm hearing some of those guys are trying to get into country music. It's cool to kind of have my own Burna Boy moment right now!

The new album sounds like you really worked on developing your voice as an instrument, with more singing than rapping. Is that a fair assumption?

Yeah. Being from Virginia, we didn't have those outlets to kind of hone in on. I didn't have a vocal coach, or a songwriting program, or anything like that. We kind of had to figure it out on our own.

I think that's why you have so many artists that come from Virginia where they're all very eclectic, they all have this kind of rawness to them. Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Pharrell, even Tommy Richman. He's got that song going crazy viral too. You know the song, the "Million Dollar Baby" song. It's a guy singing falsetto [like] Bee Gees over a hip-hop beat. I'm like, where did you learn to structure a song like this?

This album was that project for me. My manager here [told me] it's working, because I'm learning how to arrange music and write songs that have a broader appeal, but I didn't know that at the time. We were just having fun, just learning how to do it with whatever resources we had. It can get kind of funky.

I think my first project was very funky, and then this one was [made after] 10 years of being in it. You start to figure it out a little bit more.

Beyond Country: All The Genres Beyoncé Explores On 'Cowboy Carter'