NEW YORK – As Ulysses Everett McGill, singer, father and escaped convict might say: "We're in a tight spot!"
That spot being No. 1 on the country-music charts for the last eight weeks.
That's not a bad debut for Mr. McGill and his band, the Soggybottom Boys, a quartet of scruffy adventurers who recorded their first hit for $10, performed in disguise and fell into stardom while evading the law, the Devil and the Ku Klux Klan.
Oh, and one other thing: The band is made up of completely fictional characters from the Coen brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The movie's soundtrack features a variety of artists playing Delta blues, bluegrass, old-time country, and gospel music. That's not exactly the type of album that screams top seller. But more than 1.2 million copies have shipped across America and the album has gone platinum since the film opened in December.
And there's more to go. Between 2 and 3 million are expected to sell by the end of the calendar year.
"Every now and then you get lightning in a bottle," said John Grady, vice president of marketing and sales for Mercury Records, the label behind the O Brother soundtrack. "There's magic in those grooves."
A Little Bit Country
As radio stations are flooded with requests for songs by the elusive group, Mercury has given in to pleas to begin arranging a nationwide tour with the artists. A Carnegie Hall appearance is planned for June 13.
Along the way the album has had to overcome unreceptive country music-format radio stations whose tastes run more along the lines of Shania Twain or Faith Hill. And one big factor in that success has been attributed to word-of-mouth promotion.
"The performances are quality performances that express a universal sentiment," according to Jay Orr, managing editor for country.com. "It sounds fresh and it sounds honest and a little exotic, and resonates culturally with people. This is just proof that the music hits the heart."
It also didn't hurt that the first blow struck hard at the twin capitals of American media, Grady noted, where loyal Coen brothers fans walked out of the theaters and straight into the nearest Tower Records.
"The two biggest markets for this record are not the traditional top two bluegrass markets, New York and L.A.," Grady said. "It's what we call a coffee-table record — it appeals to people who don't own any other albums by the artists before this."
Fact or Fiction?
In the course of the Coen brothers' music-drenched re-creation of the Depression-era South, McGill (George Clooney) and his hapless cohorts pretend to be old-time country singers to make a buck, but later find their invented band has become the hottest thing in Mississippi since instant grits.
"I've had people calling my house just trying to find out anything else the Soggybottom Boys did," musician Dan Tyminski, the non-George Clooney half of Ulysess Everett McGill, said. "There's irony there, in that real life is following this movie."
While filmgoers might envision the lead Soggybottom Boy as a dead ringer for the handsome film star, the singing voice belongs to 33-year-old Tyminski, singer and guitarist for the country band Union Station.
"It's received so much attention that it's really hard for it to sink in that it's a type of music I’ve always played," he said from the porch of his house near Nashville.
And, it's been an exciting turn of events for the album's youngest contributors, the Peasall sisters, of White Horse, Tenn. The girls, Leah, Hannah and Sarah, 7, 10 and 13 respectively, provide the voices for McGill's songstress daughters, and have been in demand everywhere from revival meetings and the Grand Ole Opry to performances for friends.
"I sang this song for this guy in my youth group," Sarah said. "And he said, 'Wow, I just got a free concert from Sarah Peasall!' It was really, really fun."
Leah chimed in breathlessly: "One of my friends, Tiffany, she was so excited for us that when she heard we went platinum she began hopping up and down and couldn't stop."
One of the few people not surprised by the album's reception is country-music historian Robert K. Oermann, author of A Century of Country and the liner notes for the soundtrack. He sees in it a "hunger" for roots music, much as that which fueled the craze for Cuban music after the movie Buena Vista Social Club.
"Too often the music industry insults the intelligence of the average person," he said. "This proves that if you give them good music, you will be drawn to it. It's tapping into what made country music a popular art form to begin with, the realness of it. People will learn that this music isn't dead, it's always been out there, not just surviving but doing well."