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O brother, what a year 2001 was for bluegrass music

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The bluegrass music industry is coming off a year that exceeded its wildest fantasies.

The "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, which features everything from field hollers to blues to gospel to old-time country and bluegrass, sold 3.5 million copies. That made it the No. 2 album in country music for 2001 — and No. 23 on the pop charts.

"Down From the Mountain," a live concert album featuring musical acts from "O Brother," seems to be headed toward 1 million in sales.

And Nickel Creek's self-titled album from 2000 is also expected to reach the 1 million mark soon.

None of those albums are what bluegrass founder Bill Monroe would have called bluegrass. But they're close enough to introduce a lot of people to the musical genre.

"2001 was one of the most significant years that bluegrass has ever experienced," said Dan Hays, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Association.

"There has certainly been some spillover from 'O Brother,' but it goes much deeper than that," he said. "Even though bluegrass record companies don't release their sales figures, there is every indication that bluegrass sales are up."

"Sharon Jones, country/bluegrass buyer for Anderson Merchandisers, which supplies Wal-Mart stores, indicated in October that even without counting 'O Brother,' 'Down From The Mountain' and 'Nickel Creek,' their sales of bluegrass were up 150 percent in 2001," Hays said.

This year's bluegrass Grammy nominees include Alison Krauss and Union Station, a former bluegrass entertainer of the year, which has been moving closer to country.

But the list also includes three country stars who are moving the other way.

Ricky Skaggs returned to bluegrass from country music with a vengeance a couple of years ago; Dolly Parton made her first bluegrass album in 2000; and Patty Loveless made her first in 2001.

Loveless and Parton remain active in country music.

The only bluegrass pioneer on this year's Grammy list is Ralph Stanley, who picked up a bluegrass Grammy nomination for a collaborative album he recorded with female singers, primarily from country and folk music.

Stanley was also nominated in country male performance for "O Death," his a capella gospel performance on the "O Brother" soundtrack.

Hays said the IBMA is "exploring relationships with other genre that would expose their fans to bluegrass. There's a summit in March with the IBMA, Blues Music Association, the Folk Alliance and the Americana Music Association to see if there are ways we can take advantage of each other's audiences."

MerleFest in Wilkesboro, N.C., one of the largest music festivals in the country, drew a record 77,023 people last year. It features artists from several genres in acoustic music.

Such events may become more common in the future.

"We're not trying to change the music," Hays said. "Just increase its exposure."