Soggy Bottom Boys in Tennessee

This report and photos are a contribution from Jessica Boggs, a librarian and serious bluegrass fan in East Tennessee.

Ralph Stanley with the Soggy Bottom Boys show in Galtinburg (3/22/14) - photo by Jessica BoggsFor fans of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? – or simply fans of great traditional bluegrass music – Gatlinburg’s Ole Smoky Holler, home of the Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine Distillery, was the place to be this past Saturday evening. Those people who thought George Clooney sure had a great singing voice might have been disappointed, but the crowd of several hundred bluegrass fans and lucky passers-by could hardly contain their excitement when the Soggy Bottom Boys took the stage for their first live set ever.

The band – Dan Tyminski, Barry Bales, Stuart Duncan, Mike Compton, and Ron Block – was part of the group that recorded the smash hit Man of Constant Sorrow for the film’s soundtrack in 2000. While several of the members regularly tour and record together as part of Alison Krauss and Union Station, the whole group had never performed together for a full concert. Tyminski joked at the beginning of the concert that it was a little known fact that they only ever did a couple of songs, so they had to learn some new ones.

Though the band was technically new, there was no shortage of talent or good music. The hour-and-a-half set was heavy on old-school bluegrass, sampling from the songbooks of Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, and Flatt and Scruggs. Many of the songs were traditional numbers that (had they been a real band) the movie’s Soggy Bottom Boys might have played in the 1930s. According to Tyminski, “You might have heard them before, but never this soggy.” In this case, “soggy” certainly seemed to be a good thing.

Tyminksi handled most of the lead vocals, including great versions of Sunny Side of the Mountain, Dark Hollow, Mary Ann, and One Tear. He and Compton did a fine duet on I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome, while Compton sang lead on a bluesy version of Sitting on Top of the World. There were also some excellent instrumental numbers, with Bluegrass Special being one of the highlights.

Of course, it wouldn’t have been a true Soggy Bottom Boys show without songs from the movie. The group opened with their famous version of Man of Constant Sorrow, and also threw in a fun rendition of In the Jailhouse Now. Ralph Stanley made a special guest appearance at the end of the show to sing two of his songs which were included in the movie – O Death, which has become a signature song for him, and Angel Band. Though it wasn’t planned, the band convinced him to lead them in his old-timey version of Man of Constant Sorrow. Stanley’s lonesome, weathered vocals captivated the crowd and provided a great end to the performance.

Although no plans have been announced for additional performances by the Soggy Bottom Boys, it’s certain that those who happened to be in Gatlinburg on Saturday wouldn’t mind if the group just so happened to reunite a few more times. However, let’s hope they don’t wait fourteen years this time!