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From 'O Brother' to the Country Chart

February 11, 2001|STEVE HOCHMAN

In the Coen brothers' film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," three Depression-era chain-gang escapees stumble into a radio station recording studio and record the folk standard "Man of Constant Sorrow." While they continue on the lam, the song becomes a hit.

Art, meet life.

Fueled by that song--sung by Dan Tyminski of Alison Krauss' Union Station band and lip-synced in the film by George Clooney-- the "O Brother" soundtrack album is becoming a surprise hit itself. This past week's sales topped 50,000, making it No. 2 on the country chart. The album has passed the 200,000 sales mark, and is No. 23 on the latest chart.

The video for the song is being aired on the CMT cable channel, but the album is doing without any help from radio. Of the 150 stations that report for the trade weekly Radio & Records' country charts, only one has even played the song.

"It just doesn't sound like what's being heard on country radio today," R&R's country music editor, Lon Helton, says of the traditional Appalachian style.

"What we see here are tastes that lean more pop and mainstream to Shania Twain and Faith Hill," says R.J. Curtis, operations manager of L.A. country station KZLA-FM (93.9). "The stuff that's even relatively more traditional--George Strait and Alan Jackson--doesn't do as well here."

But that's not stopping Mercury Nashville, the label that released the soundtrack, from giving it a good try. With a full-page ad in R&R asking, "O Radio, Where Art Thou?," the company has launched a campaign to get country stations to keep up with record buyers.

Label Chairman Luke Lewis says the company has been encouraging programmers to give the song a shot during talk-heavy morning shows or specialty "roots" blocks, but even that's an uphill fight.

"Country radio programmers are embattled these days," he says. "They've lost listeners in the past four years, and they seem to program defensively. There might be a record that people are really passionate about, but if they think some people may hate it because it's too twangy, they won't play it."

Even if the song does break through the logjam, Lewis has no illusions that it will start a new roots-conscious trend. But he's willing to settle for a movie-driven novelty hit, a la Flatt & Scruggs' "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" from "Bonnie and Clyde," and Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell's "Dueling Banjos" from "Deliverance."

But both Lewis and T Bone Burnett, who produced the soundtrack music, believe there's more than a novelty factor turning the movie's fantasy into reality.

"I've had many reports every day from people calling who have seen the movie," says Burnett. "They talk about the anticipation that builds to the scene where there's a concert at the end and people in the audience jump up and clap with the music just like the people in the movie. People are responding to the music."

YOU'VE GOT CROSS-PROMOTION: Everyone expected a flood of synergistic tie-ins and product placements to follow the recent merger of America Online and Time Warner. But the first authorized use of one of AOL's familiar voice signals in the composition of a pop song is not on a Warner Music Group label, but on rival EMI's 2K Records

"The Kiss Off (Goodbye)," will be released in early March as the first single from 14-year-old pop rookie Brooke Allison. The distinctive "goodbye" signaling the end of an AOL session is the centerpiece of the song's chorus.

"My 11-year-old son is constantly on AOL and there's that dry 'goodbye,' " says Jim Peterik, who wrote the song last year. "I loved the sound of that and as a songwriter am always thinking and came up with this concept of a girl kissing off a real jerk of a boyfriend, and I used that voice, the very cut-and-dried goodbye."

Chicago-based Peterik, a member of the '60s-'70s group Ides of March and later Survivor, found AOL quite receptive when he sought permission to use the snippet.

"It's such a huge corporation, but they made it really nice," he says. "They liked the song and they liked Brooke."

And no wonder. Not only does the song use the sound, but the lyrics also mention AOL, and the single and a subsequent album will feature a credit for Elwood Edwards, the voice of AOL.

AOL spokeswoman Wendy Goldberg says that while other requests for use of the company's sounds in songs have been turned down, "The Kiss Off" is "a great, positive way for people to hear something they're familiar with and build the AOL brand."

EXECUTIVE DECISION: The latest rock star to be given his own label is Spider One, the singer and main man of Powerman 5000, whose DreamWorks-distributed Megatronics Records is set to debut with the release May 22 of the first major-label album by Boston band Halfcocked.

How did he get his own label?

"It's a pretty complex system," he says. "You ask for it and they say yes."

It helped that he asked for it the day after his band's "Tonight the Stars Revolt" passed the million sales mark. DreamWorks executives gave the label the thumbs-up.

Spider's venture comes tinged with something extra--sibling rivalry. His older brother, Rob Zombie, has had his own label for several years. Spider says there's one big difference. Unlike Zombie, he wants to have hits.

"When Rob started his label, he definitely wasn't trying to sign bands that would be huge successes," says Spider. "He has strange projects like Halloween compilations, surf bands, stuff that sells 10,000 copies if you're lucky. I'm going to sign things I like whether they sell a million or not, but for me the fun is to find people who can sell records and build that from the ground up."

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