52: Man of Constant Sorrow

52: Man of Constant Sorrow

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music

Man of Constant Sorrow

Story by Dan Tyminski

Song originally attributed to Dick Burnett (Soggy Bottom Boys arrangement by Carter Stanley)

Recorded by Ralph Stanley, The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Dan Tyminski (for O Brother Where Art Thou?), and various other artists

“Man of Constant Sorrow” is a song that I’ve heard for years. I grew up with bluegrass music and I’ve heard Ralph Stanley do it in person many times and, of course, knew about his recordings of it. I was somewhat surprised to hear that it was going to be used in a Coen brothers movie, and that George Clooney would be singing it. I just couldn’t imagine it, but then I don’t make movies, so that’s no shocker. But I got a big grin when I found out they were going to make that happen.

The Coen brothers had been in contact with our manager, Denise Stiff, and had slotted us in for an audition to play some of the soundtrack music. We did that at a studio in Nashville. At that point, they still had to cast a few of the parts, Clooney’s voice on the song being one of them. They said they were still looking, and my manager mentioned that I might be a candidate. I was asked to come back the following day to audition separately for the Clooney role, and I got it.

It was the first time I ever had to record anything that way. Part of the deal was that there could be no overdubs and no studio magic. It had to be one take, start to finish, and that scared me. I’m used to being able to listen to tracks over and over and, if there is something that you don’t feel you did your best performance on, you can go back and play it over or sing a certain part again. So it was a little intimidating to do this kind of live version with one microphone in front of me and no headphones and no monitor.

We did it as if we were back in the 1930s, with an old microphone and old instruments. They (the Coen brothers and producer T Bone Burnett) were very particular that it be authentic and pure. The whole point of the soundtrack was to make it as organic as possible. That’s one record where you don’t hear any overdubs or people who have fixed anything. That was completely raw, untouched music.

It was definitely a surprise to see the level of enormous popularity that it attained. It was amazing to watch all the heads from outside that genre turn to look at some new music — at least new music to them. For us, of course, it’s been here forever.

We had the Ralph Stanley version of the song that we drew on, but through the process of working it up for the movie, it was changed and it morphed into something completely different. They were giving visuals and trying to explain where in the movie this was taking place. They said, “You just escaped from prison. Your fingers are flying and you’re trying to play rock and roll, but it hasn’t been invented yet. You know if you knock it out of the park singing into this can, you’re going to get a big payday.”

That was the first time I had ever cut anything where they were so insistent upon what we were thinking about and what the visual was to go along with it. Then they said, “You just stole a chicken, too.” I’m not sure how that makes you want to play or sing, other than the fact that you are so hungry that you’re really reaching for it hard, but I think they were able to capture what they were looking for in our recording.

T Bone Burnett produced the soundtrack but I was really surprised at how much involvement the Coens had with the soundtrack. When we walked into that first audition, T Bone and Joel and Ethan Coen had every recorded piece of music they could find from the 1930s: boxed sets from the most obscure artists you would ever imagine. Literally, if it was recorded during that time, they had researched it and heard it. They did some pretty extensive work to come up with the feel of that soundtrack, and there was definitely a continuity to it.

A lot of the cuts on the soundtrack were original recordings from the 1930s, but I guess they decided to do a few new versions like this one because they wanted to keep to the premise that it was George Clooney singing, so his vocal would have to be someone who is a little younger than some of the older recordings.

I remember the initial talks we had at Mercury with Luke Lewis and T Bone. I think we went to play golf and T Bone was still trying to shop this project. It was really neat to see the level of confidence he had even then. He foresaw that it was going to be a huge record and he kept saying over and over how big it was going to be. Luke and I were listening and I think we were both thinking, “I know you think this is going to be big, but we all know the type of music this is and what the ceiling is on those kinds of records.” He was predicting millions in sales, which is insane for that type of music, but sure enough, he was right.

There was a lot of publicity as far as that record being tied to the movie and the Coens and the actors, so radio stations started picking it up. I’m not sure it was even released as a single initially, but when it started getting some action, the label started pushing it. It’s just rare to see something of that genre break into the field it was in and get that much attention, whether it be from the awards shows or country radio or pop radio. It was phenomenal to watch that unfold.

It took a lot of stars to line up for this to happen. It was more than just a movie, or just the music, or just the actors. More people than not were fooled into thinking that George Clooney was singing, and it got a lot of attention just for that. That’s hard for me to imagine, but you believe what you see. When you see someone open their mouth and you hear something come out, you don’t ever question whether it’s them or not. You just believe it. And he did a fantastic job in the way that he performed it, too.

The song was also an amazing thing for me personally. It brought a spotlight to me that I had never seen before. The press factor went up a thousand times after the movie came out. When you play the type of music that I do, and you’re able to obtain a song of that magnitude, you’re just very grateful.

Man of Constant Sorrow

I am a man of constant sorrow

I’ve seen trouble all my day.

I bid farewell to old Kentucky

The place where I was born and raised.

(The place where he was born and raised)

For six long years I’ve been in trouble

No pleasures here on earth I found

For in this world I’m bound to ramble

I have no friends to help me now.

(He has no friends to help him now)

It’s fare thee well my old true lover

I never expect to see you again

For I’m bound to ride that northern railroad

Perhaps I’ll die upon this train.

(Perhaps he’ll die upon this train.)

You can bury me in some deep valley

For many years where I may lay

Then you may learn to love another

While I am sleeping in my grave.

(While he is sleeping in his grave.)

Maybe your friends think I’m just a stranger

My face you’ll never see no more.

But there is one promise that is given

I’ll meet you on God’s golden shore.

(He’ll meet you on God’s golden shore.)

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