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It was May 24, 2000. Several months before O Brother, Where Art Thou? hit movie screens, Joel and Ethan Coen and T-Bone Burnett mounted a concert of the movie’s music at the Ryman Auditorium. In part, “Down from the Mountain” was a fundraiser for the new Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. A friend and I were there, and on the second row, because a couple of weeks earlier I had emailed the answer to a trivia question to the local newspaper (What Coen Bros. movie won the Palm D’or at Cannes? Barton Fink) and scored the tickets.

Joel and Ethan Coen were there, and Billy Bob Thornton was on the front row. Holly Hunter kicked things off by explaining the rationale for the show and introducing the opening act. For the next couple of hours we were treated to performances from some of the great bluegrass and Americana (and blues and a cappella) artists around: Alison Krauss & Union Station, John Hartford (who was also the emcee), the Fairfield Four, the Cox family, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, the Whites, Ralph Stanley, etc.

Of all the great highlights of the show, the best for me was Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings’ rendition of “Green Pastures,” backed up by Jerry Douglas on dobro. You know how there are some songs that, even if you’ve never heard them before, on first listening it seems like you’ve always known them? “Green Pastures” was like that for me. (If you’re interested, Emmylou Harris also covers the song on her Spyboy album.) After the show, we drove home in possibly the hardest rainstorm I’ve ever had to drive in. It was really unbelievable.

All in all, it was probably the best concert experience I’ve ever had. What we couldn’t have known then, but know now, is that O Brother would turn out to be the Coens’ biggest financial success to date, and that the soundtrack would help ignite the bluegrass resurgence of the last decade. For that reason, too, it was a historical occasion, never to be repeated.

The concert was filmed by documentarian DA Pennebaker and is available on DVD. The first third is behind the scenes footage, meaning the entire concert is not actually shown. Hopefully, all of the footage will be released one day. (And yes, you can see my 2000 self if you know where to freeze frame.)

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