Don Williams
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Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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Success of 'O Brother' is solid testament to good harmony, melody
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   03/01/2002)

"Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Well, since you asked, he's probably down by the riverside picking guitar and dreaming of a Grammy.

I don't know about you, but watching "Oh Brother..." take the country by storm has been one of the most gratifying developments in pop culture for a while.

Several of my in-laws and friends of the Northern persuasion made fun of the CD when I introduced it to them over Christmas, and I couldn't convince them "Oh Death," as sung by Ralph Stanley, was any kind of classic.

He who laughs last laughs like a country hick, I guess, but it sure was nice to see Stanley, Allison Kraus and company walk away with a half-dozen or so Grammies Wednesday night.

For one thing, it was a rebuke to the many ugly contrivances that pass for music on the radio these days. I'm old-fashioned enough to admit to enjoying things like harmony, melody and instrumental virtuosity. You don't hear much of those anymore on mainstream radio.

There was a time when harmony and melody poured from the radio like tap water. Switch on the box and there they were, so memorable that many of us can still sing our way through Top 10 lists of 1965 or 1972. It's astounding to remember how much good music was in the air back then. I defy you to sing your way through a Top Ten list from the past 20 years. It is not a gratifying experience.

Some old-timers, such as Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and the late Waylon Jennings, were mentioned on Wednesday--another gratifying aspect to the 2002 Grammies--but you seldom actually hear them on the radio anymore.

Here's how tone deaf mainstream radio has become. Country stations turned away from "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" in droves, but the album went multi-platinum anyhow. T Bone Burnett, who won producer of the year for the compilation was widely quoted as saying, "Everybody thought I was insane," for producing it.

Mostly the disk's success was based on word of mouth from people who went to see the Coen Brothers movie of the same name, and fell in love with the music. If you didn't see the movie, rent the video. Be warned, though, you might be offended if you don't like films or TV shows that ridicule the South. I was not a fan of "The Beverly Hillbillies" for that reason.

But "O Brother" is so over-the-top in its send-up of the South that I got the feeling it was laughing at the media stereotypes it put on screen as much as the fools, villains and oddball heroes presented there.

In any case, it's a good story. Based on Homer's "Odyssey" believe it or not, the movie serves up three men on a quest, wherein they encounter oracles and beautiful sirens, one-eyed Cyclops, men transformed into beasts, a violent homecoming celebration and much more. It's a good film, if not great, but the music is what sticks with you when the movie is over.

Set in Louisiana and Mississippi, I remember remarking as I left the theatre, "That was like a drive through Kentucky."

When driving through Kentucky, I always switch on a.m. radio for a while. There's an organic earthiness to the music on some a.m. stations there that is no doubt the seedbed for much of the music that makes it to mainstream stations. You can hear it on Tennessee stations too. Driving through Kentucky, though--mostly on my way to visiting in-laws and friends of the Northern persuasion, is when I usually switch on a.m. radio for a few minutes.

There you'll hear small children singing songs to Jesus. And you'll hear raspy-voiced preachers belting out messages of love and damnation. On my last pass through I heard a woman request prayer for her sister's full recovery from a hysterectomy, just before she and another sister broke into harmonious song.

You'll hear fiddles and banjoes and harmonies honed around dinner tables and front porches. You may not like a lot of it, but you know you've listened to something genuine, something that seems to have grown up from the very earth.

Such sounds are rare in today's over developed, over-produced world. But "Oh Brother" has that quality about it. Listen to that album and you know you've heard something real. Let's hope it starts a movement.