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'O Brother' Soundtrack Still Driving Bluegrass


NASHVILLE — As its annual convention and awards show approaches, the bluegrass music industry continues to enjoy newfound popularity created by the Grammy-winning "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack.

However, the recording contains few true bluegrass tunes.

"To me, the 'O Brother' soundtrack is not bluegrass," said singer Rhonda Vincent, the International Bluegrass Music Assn.'s reigning best entertainer.

"But as long as people love the music, who cares what it's called?"

The "O Brother" phenomenon--the recording remains on the charts after two years and more than 6 million sales--will provide discussion fodder for the 20,000 bluegrass artists, talent bookers and record executives gathering next week at the Galt House hotel in Louisville, Ky., for a trade show and music festival.

Dan Hays, the organization's president, says that although "O Brother" has been a strong catalyst for bluegrass music, a wide variety of acts--from traditional artists such as Ricky Skaggs and Del McCoury to contemporary ones such as Nickel Creek and Alison Krauss--have secured the fan base.

"In 1997, there were about 800 stations playing bluegrass for 2 1/2 hours a week," Hays said. "This year, it's up to six hours at 900 stations."

Attendance is up at the more than 500 bluegrass festivals held across the country each year, and instrument manufacturers report backlogged orders for banjos, mandolins and guitars.

Vincent, though only tangentially involved in "O Brother" with a few appearances on the "Down From the Mountain" tour, partly traces her recent popularity to it.

"I have an album that came out a year ago June, and it's almost at 50,000 in sales and still selling well," she said. "That's unreal for a bluegrass artist, and has to be a part of all that."

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