Up On the Mountain
Surely the most surreal musical moment of the year occurred last February at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, when Ralph Stanley, the bluegrass patriarch, scared the bejesus out of the Armani-clad music-industry folks at the Staples Center with his chilling a cappella version of "O Death." In the song, from the wildly popular O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, Stanley, in his not-of-this-world tenor voice, pleads with the Grim Reaper to "spare me over till another year," to which Death replies icily, "I come to take the soul/Leave the body and leave it cold/To draw up the flesh off of the frame/The Earth and worms both have a claim." Yikes. Elvis Costello, a presenter at the awards show, called Stanley's performance "the highlight of my evening -- without question."
Moments later, in another unlikely turn of events, Stanley was awarded the Grammy for "Best Male Country Vocal Performance" for the song -- beating out Tim McGraw, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Lyle Lovett and Ryan Adams in the process.
"I was surprised," says Stanley, a modest man, from his home in Coeburn, Virginia, a tiny hamlet in the state's secluded southwest corner. "That was the one I was wanting, but I didn't think that I would get it. I'm proud of it."
Stanley isn't the only performer to reap the earthly benefits of the O Brother phenomenon, but surely he is the most deserving. T-Bone Burnett, who produced the soundtrack, says he has taken great pleasure in seeing Stanley finally achieve some measure of recognition, not to mention fame and fortune. As a result of the album's overwhelming success, Stanley has become something of a media star. He's performed on both The Late Show With David Letterman and The Tonight Show, and he's scheduled to appear on Good Morning America on June 28. (Can Saturday Night Live be far behind?) Last year, he was the subject of a fascinating profile in The New Yorker, by novelist and Newsweek music critic David Gates. He was the star attraction of last winter's "Down From the Mountain" tour, which returns to Red Rocks on August 4. Thanks to his O Brother royalties, Stanley now drives around town in a shiny black Jaguar.
"He's looking pretty sleek these days," says Burnett, who signed Stanley to a six-record deal with DMZ Records, the new label he formed with O Brother filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. Burnett produced the just-released Ralph Stanley, which consists of eleven high-lonesome ballads and spirituals, some of them centuries old. On it, Stanley is backed by several O Brother musicians -- guitarist Norman Blake, mandolinist Mike Compton, fiddler Stuart Duncan and bassist Dennis Crouch -- instead of his longtime bluegrass band, the Clinch Mountain Boys.
"I'm 75 years old, you know," Stanley says, "and most everybody is retired at that age. But it seems like my career just got started."
One of the prime movers of bluegrass music, Stanley began his musical career in 1946 with his brother Carter, a fine singer and songwriter who died in 1966 at the age of 41. The Stanley Brothers recorded some of the genre's most enduring music, haunting songs of sin and redemption such as "The White Dove," "The Fields Have Turned Brown," "Rank Strangers" and "Pretty Polly." Initially influenced by Bill Monroe, the Stanleys quickly developed their own unique sound, which was rooted in the Appalachian mountains of their southwestern Virginia home. To this day, Stanley prefers to call what he plays "old-time mountain music," or "old-time country music," or just "American music."
"You see," he says, "I was doing this a long time before they started calling it bluegrass. When I think of bluegrass, I think of Bill [Monroe]. Bill's music was a little bit more polished, with a little more drive to it. Mine's just more what I call old time."
For years, Stanley was overshadowed by the legendary Monroe, the "Father of Bluegrass," who had the advantage of recording for a major label (Decca) and being a longstanding member of the Grand Ole Opry. Stanley, on the other hand, was well known among bluegrass devotees -- Jerry Garcia, who sang "The White Dove" with his bluegrass group Old & in the Way, once said, "Ralph Stanley is my model for the best voice in the world" -- but he wasn't exactly a household name. He and his band traveled by bus from one small-town gig to another, making occasional stops in big cities like Boston, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. He recorded more than 150 albums for a number of labels, most of them independents such as King, Jalyn, Freeland and Rebel. But mainstream fame eluded him. (He did, however, receive an honorary doctorate in music from Tennessee's Lincoln Memorial University in 1976, which explains why he is often referred to as "Dr. Ralph Stanley.")
Things began to change in the '90s, when Stanley was embraced by new (and mostly younger) fans outside the ghettoized world of bluegrass. Much to his surprise, Stanley became cool. First came his critically acclaimed 1992 album Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, which found him in the company of such high-profile guests as George Jones, Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris and Dwight Yoakam. A similar -- and even better -- collection, Clinch Mountain Country, appeared in 1997. Among that album's many highlights is "The Lonesome River," a duet featuring Stanley and Bob Dylan, who has been known to twang up his shows with such Stanley Brothers classics as "Rank Strangers" and "Stone Walls and Steel Bars."
In 2000, four years after Monroe's death at the age of 84, Stanley was finally asked to join the cast of the Grand Ole Opry, essentially taking over Monroe's role on the program as the elder statesman of bluegrass. That achievement probably would have been Stanley's crowning achievement if not for the out-of-left-field success of O Brother.
"He was the first person we thought of for the movie," Burnett says of Stanley. "We needed a song for the Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard to sing at a hanging. And so I said to the Coens, 'How about this song "O Death"?' So I played the Dock Boggs version of it, because to me his version is like something by the Beatles. It's got that kind of 'Mr. Moonlight' otherworldliness to it. And they dug it. It had just the right feeling for that moment in the film -- that spooked-out feeling. And the first person we thought of to sing it was Ralph. We were only worried that he would be offended at the notion of it being sung by a Ku Klux Klansman, but he wasn't at all." ("It's just a movie," Stanley says. "It wasn't real.")
In the studio, Stanley played the song about five or six times accompanying himself on the banjo, but he wasn't happy with the results. Neither was Burnett. "I said to the Coens, 'Why don't we try one a cappella?' And I walked into the studio to tell Ralph, and he was walking out, and he said, 'Why don't we try one a cappella?' And I said, 'That's a great idea!' Then he went and did it in one take. Boom! It was extraordinary."
For Ralph Stanley, Burnett wanted to record the singer "in a slower, more deliberate kind of way, experiment with arrangements, loosen things up, get out of the bluegrass world. I think the problem with bluegrass is that it's become too full and too brash." Indeed, the album has a stripped-down, almost chamber-music -- some might say prissy -- quality to it that puts the spotlight on Stanley's extraordinary voice. Burnett selected the songs on the album, including such traditional ballads as "False-Hearted Lover's Blues," "Henry Lee," Girl From the Greenbriar Shore" and "Little Mathie Grove." There's also a little-known Hank Williams gospel number, "Calling You," and a Stanley original, "Great Mountain High."
"One of Ralph Stanley's gifts is to be able to contain and express grief," Burnett says. "There's just such a deep grief in his tone. That's what we were looking for in all of these songs. [It's] the natural extension of what O Brother was doing." Stanley agrees that his voice is "mournful," but he adds, "I'm not sure whether I'm bragging or not. It's just the voice that God gave me, you know. And I think He meant for me to use it. He gave me everything I've got."
In typical fashion, Stanley doesn't waste a lot of words talking about the new album. "I'm real proud of it," he says. "T-Bone thinks really highly of it, and the Coen Brothers is in with it, you know. They think it's going to do good, and I'm hoping."
Bluegrass fans will be pleased to know that Stanley has also released a superb collaboration with alt-country singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale called Lost in the Lonesome Pines; it's a followup to their 1999 album I Feel Like Singing Today. (Lauderdale calls Stanley "The King of Mountain Soul.") Then there's the recent Live at McCabe's Guitar Shop, 2.11.01, which highlights Stanley's top-notch band, the Clinch Mountain Boys: rhythm guitarist (and son) Ralph Stanley II, bassist Jack Cooke, fiddler James Price, lead guitarist James Shelton, banjoist Steve Sparkman and mandolinist John Rigsby.
Stanley has no intention of slowing down. He and his group still play more than 175 shows a year, many of them in small towns in the South, with side trips for major festivals like Telluride. They live in scattered communities in the mountains of Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, and meet up in Coeburn on a Thursday, load up the bus and hit the road, returning home on Monday for a few days off. Then they do it all over again. The more things change for Stanley, the more they seem to remain the same.
"I've always stayed around home, you know," he says.
Stanley once said, "I doubt if I can last as long as Bill Monroe," but that prediction now seems debatable. "I don't know of anything that's wrong with me," he says. "I get tired sometimes, but I rest up overnight, and I'm new again. I've been well-blessed."
Which brings us back to "O Death." You might think that Stanley, a deeply religious man, takes the opportunity to ponder his own mortality whenever he sings the song, but if that's so, he isn't saying. "I know that it's a true song," he allows, "and I try to sing it like I live it." Still, when he intones, "O Death, please consider my age/Please don't take me at this stage," you can't help but wonder whether somebody up there is listening.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.