In 2001, singer/guitarist Dan Tyminski took a brief sojourn from his day job as part of Alison Krauss' Union Station to tour behind his first solo album. Tyminski loved playing bluegrass with Krauss and had no intention of starting a solo career. In fact, the album, Carry Me Across the Mountain, was done primarily as a favor.
"I had a friend in Virginia who had started a small independent record label," Tyminski says, "and I'd worked with him for so long he really wanted me to be a part of it. And he was one of my best friends, so I thought I would find a way to do a record with a lot of my friends and heroes and people I respected."
So he was in the middle of that somewhat modest tour when a song from another album he'd played on began attracting a little bit of attention. The song was "Man of Constant Sorrow," and the album was the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou.
It's hard to describe what a phenomenon the O Brother soundtrack became in 2001. A collection of classic bluegrass, folk, and gospel that featured Tyminski (as part of an ensemble called the Soggy Bottom Boys), Krauss, Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Norman Blake, and many more, the album hit a nerve with an audience that was perhaps sick of post-grunge and electronica. It sold over eight million copies and won three Grammy Awards, raising the general awareness of traditional American music and changing Tyminski's life forever.
"I just remember being blown away by how popular it was," he says. "I'd been playing that music my entire lifetime, and I'd never seen it affect people so much. I was dumbfounded at how many people from different genres of music took to that soundtrack. I suppose if you grow up playing bluegrass music, which is not mainstream music, you're used to seeing a certain result. Anytime something exceeds what you're used to seeing, it's always going to be a surprise."
Tyminski has regrouped with the Soggy Bottom Boys (standup bassist Barry Bales, banjo player Ron Block, fiddle and mandolin player Stuart Duncan, and singer/guitarist Pat Enright) for a tour, and yes, they'll be playing the signature O Brother tune "Man of Constant Sorrow" along with a host of other traditional tunes.
"This is the part where I say that the Soggy Bottom Boys are deeply into traditional music," Tyminski says with a laugh. "We all have songs that we're partial to that all date back to an earlier time. We're drawing on a pool of old tunes and trying to do them our own way, to make them sound like us. It's traditional old-time mountain music for the most part."
Playing music that's deeply entrenched in American tradition while putting a unique stamp on it might seem like a hard line to walk, but Tyminski says it's a balance he spends a whole lot of time thinking about. "To a degree, I consider them somewhat synonymous," he says. "I think when this music was born, it was from people trying to put their own stamp on the music that they loved. So music continues to evolve. It's just traditional now, because we're looking back at it; at the time, it was contemporary music. The goal of the people that created this music in the first place was to take their own life experiences, sounds, feelings, and emotions, and apply them to the music. So I look at what we do as the same thing. Staying true to traditional music is staying true to how I feel about music in general."
Speaking of contemporary music, Tyminski was actually part of another phenomenal musical success recently that had nothing to do with bluegrass. He provided the lead vocals on a song called "Hey Brother" by electronic artist Avicii. The single went to No. 1 in 18 different countries, once again leaving Tyminski stunned.
"It was a little strange, because when I was first approached, it seemed like the world of EDM was a little too far beyond what I might be comfortable with," he says. "I remember wanting to say 'Thank you, but no thank you,' and my assistant asked if I'd like to hear the song first. And when I listened to that song, it made perfect sense. What the song was about [Avicii giving advice to his brother], the key, the melody, the chords, everything — I really loved it. The worst-case scenario was we tried something, and if it doesn't fly, at least it's something we believed in. And I think it was No. 1 in five or six countries at the same time. It was neat to see that it's possible to take what I do and translate it to a different kind of music."
Despite that successful experiment, Tyminski says he has no intention of leaving the world of traditional acoustic music anytime soon. "I think music in general will always continue to resonate — we just happen to be talking about one particularly pure form of the music where everything's acoustic," he says. "We're talking about pieces of wood shaped and glued together to create certain tones. What I have always loved about bluegrass music is that it's an organic music. You don't have to have any bells or whistles or tricks. I just think there's nothing more beautiful than the right combination of players playing acoustic. I've always loved it, and I always will."