Grammy flashback: How ‘O Brother’ beat the odds to win Album of the Year in 2001

No surprise was bigger at the 44th Grammy Awards than the Album of the Year prize going to the soundtrack for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The roots-music album beat India.Arie (“Acoustic Soul”), Bob Dylan (“Love and Theft”), OutKast (“Stankonia”) and U2 (“All That You Can’t Leave Behind”). Most remarkable about the win were the obstacles the disc overcame as well as what the victory said about the state of the music industry at that time.

The industry was still dealing with peer-to-peer file-sharing, which threatened future album sales. Backlash against overly manufactured commercial music was also reaching its peak, but the conventional wisdom was that in order for a piece of music to be successful it needed significant play on radio and television.

This is what makes the win by the “O Brother” soundtrack so noteworthy. In a time of free downloads and music made only to satisfy a niche commercial market came this compilation album from a modestly successful film, whose genre lacked broad appeal, and the tracks received little exposure on radio, MTV, or country music television stations.

But the album was successful despite those obstacles. It was released in December 2000 before the film hit theaters, but it wasn’t until after the new year that the album finally broke into the Billboard 200 at position #192. Once it charted, it stayed there and continued to sell copies through a most old-fashioned method: word-of-mouth. By the time the 44th Grammys rolled around in February 2002, the album had sold more than four million units. Its Album of the Year victory further fueled sales, and shortly after the ceremony the album hit number-one on the Billboard 200, 63 weeks after debuting on the chart. To date, it has sold over eight million units and is ranked by the RIAA as one of the 200 best selling albums of all time.

Another interesting, though rarely discussed, aspect of this Grammy win is how well received that choice turned out to be. While it shocked many, including a number of those who made their way to the Grammy stage to accept the award, once the victory sank in it was a welcome one, further demonstrating how this album had transcended genre boundaries to find its success. In the face of the industry’s pop dominance and digital upheaval, it’s not hard to understand Grammy voters from all backgrounds looking at the nominees for Album of the Year that year and deciding to vote for a crossover album of American roots music. It’s been eleven years since, and in an industry that’s always changing the positive attitude towards that win has stayed the same.

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