- Dan Tyminski
If you were casting the singing voice of a charming but roguish Southern gentleman for a backwoods film adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey, Vermont is probably not the first place you would look. But the Green Mountain State has the distinction of lending a native son for just such a purpose.
Born and raised in West Rutland, Dan Tyminski is not exactly a household name. He’s highly regarded in roots-music circles for his work with noted bluegrass outfit Lonesome River Band, and with Americana darlings Alison Krauss & Union Station. But his most famous performance is as the voice of The Soggy Bottom Boys’ front man Ulysses Everett McGill, played by George Clooney, in 2000’s successful Coen brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? In particular, Tyminski’s rendition of The Stanley Brothers classic “Man of Constant Sorrow” was a surprise smash hit — both in the film and real life — and sparked a global resurgence of interest in bluegrass and American roots music.
Seven Days caught up with Tyminski by phone at his current home outside of Nashville, in advance of two Vermont shows he’ll play this weekend with his band.
SEVEN DAYS: Did you grow up in a musical family?
DAN TYMINSKI: My family definitely provided the avenue to the music for me, yes. My mother used to sing and play a little bit. She didn’t do it professionally
. . . And both Mom and Dad were big music fans. They used to go to a lot of festivals and fiddle contests and square dances. Everything you could find.
SD: Did you ever have formal training?
DT: No formal training. I still kick myself a little bit for that.
SD: You seem to wear a lot of hats, acting as sideman for Alison Krauss but also fronting your own group. Do you find one of those roles more satisfying than the other?
DT: For me, while we’re playing, they both feel very much the same. There are still five people on the stage, very much leaning on each other throughout the whole show. So it’s not something where I feel like I’m wearing a different hat when I do my band.
SD: Are the dynamics different between groups?
DT: Well, I have to say that I haven’t been in very many bands. I think I’ve been in three bands in my entire life. And I’ve been pretty fortunate to get along with and really like all the people in all the bands. I certainly know of a lot of horror stories and situations where people don’t gel and there are some funky dynamics. But I’ve had a pretty smooth sailing ship.
SD: How does your approach to different instruments you play, like mandolin or guitar, change in different settings?
DT: I think the approach for me differs according to who I’m playing with and what they’re playing at that time. I don’t think I have a template of what I’m going to do . . . I try to be really free and listen to what’s going on around me, and let my hands move and try to put as little conscious thought into what I’m playing as possible.
SD: So, I have to ask, was it weird to hear your voice coming out of George Clooney’s mouth?
DT: Extremely weird. It’s hard to describe just how it makes you feel. But in its own little way, it’s disturbing, you know? It’s just . . . yeah, it’s just surreal.
SD: I can imagine. How did you come to be involved with O Brother?
DT: Well, we were first approached as a band, meaning Alison Krauss & Union Station. And they wanted us to possibly record some of the soundtrack music. When we went in for our audition, my manager had mentioned to me that they still had yet to cast George Clooney’s [singing] voice. And she just mentioned I might be a candidate. They asked if I was interested, and of course I said yes. So we arranged a separate audition the following day for the Clooney part, which just happened to go my way.
SD: Were you surprised by how the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack sparked a renewed interest in Americana and roots music among more mainstream audiences?
DT: I was surprised by it. You know, I have been used to seeing only a certain amount of response for this type of music. It’s just not one of the larger genres . . . For whatever reason, the O Brother soundtrack seemed to really reach way outside of the normal scope of listeners.
SD: What impact have you seen on your career as a result?
DT: After the big resurgence of roots music and bluegrass music — I think, you know, it’s not just myself. I mean, I absolutely saw a difference in attendance and people coming out to shows. But really, I think it carried across the board. I know of a lot of festivals — mostly in the Southeast, the ones that I’m familiar with — where attendance doubled and tripled after that movie. So, to see the trickle-down effect . . . I mean, obviously all the people involved with the soundtrack saw a little boost in their own shows and attendance and record sales and whatnot. But I think it was really cooler, to me, to see how it affected people even outside, who had no ties to it. Just in general, everything seemed to spike. It was neat to see the positive effect from that.
SD: When you’re playing a classic song, such as “Man of Constant Sorrow,” do you make a conscious effort to reinterpret it in your own way or, conversely, to try to faithfully reproduce the original?
DT: You know, I think when I do it . . . I mean, the version that we recorded is so ingrained in me, that’s kind of what I lean on. But to come up with that particular arrangement and style for that song [in the film], there was some labor involved. I was not initially cast to play the guitar on it — there was another guitar player when we first started recording it. And it wasn’t working. So this is really the first recording session that I had such specific instructions . . . It was really neat.
I remember T-Bone [Burnett, producer] saying, “You’re an escapee. You’re running for your life and you’re starving. You just stole a chicken so you can eat. You just found out that if you sing into this can you can make $50, which for us would be thousands of dollars. If you can just kick butt on this song. You’re trying to sing rock ’n’ roll, it just hasn’t been invented yet. You’re black. You’re devil-possessed.”
So I think that, because of the way it went down, it’s definitely a different version than had I just done my interpretation.
SD: In a genre so deeply rooted in tradition, do you ever find yourself confined by stylistic constraints?
DT: I would say no. I think, for myself and the people I travel with, we’re all deeply rooted in traditional music. We all grew up with the same heroes and the same sound. But, with that in mind, we play from the influences we have in our lives. And that comes from outside of traditional music as well. I think everybody is a product of their collective listening — there are going to be things injected from all directions.
SD: What are your thoughts on the trend of traditional influences appearing in less traditional settings, such as alt-country or newgrass?
DT: Boy, oh, boy, that’s a deep question. In a nutshell, if it works, do it. But I noticed, particularly after O Brother received all the accolades, if you listen to the music that was produced shortly thereafter, you started hearing a lot more banjos and mandolins and different things mixed in. You know, people are always looking for that magic combination . . .
But I don’t know. I don’t think there’s any template or any formula you can use. It’s one of those very personal things. If it works for a particular song, then by all means, do it. But I wouldn’t stick banjos in contemporary music just for the sake of trying to make it roots-oriented. I don’t think it works like that.
SD: You sometimes hear professional athletes say that if they weren’t playing sports, they would want to be professional musicians. I know you’re an avid golfer, so would you say the reverse is true in your case?
DT: I am the reciprocal. There is just something fascinating to me about that game. It’s the deepest game. You never hit the same shot twice. There just seem to be endless possibilities in [golf], just like in music. I think that might be why I’m attracted to both.