In the physical world, Ralph Stanley seems an unlikely candidate for greatness. The slight, dour 74-year-old singer and banjo player nonetheless conjures with his music an unearthly insight into the bleakness and blessings of the human condition. His plaintive artistry on songs like "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" and "O Death" transcends labels like bluegrass or folk and invokes the pure, primal realm. A backwoods boy from the hills of Virginia, Ralph Stanley has become a legend.
Like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs, Stanley is one of the giants of bluegrass, helping to shape the genre. Lately his native genius is being recognized by a far wider audience. The Coen brothers' movie O Brother, Where Art Thou, starring George Clooney, has fueled an unprecedented popularity for old-timey music. The soundtrack, featuring musicians like Stanley, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and the late John Hartford, took on a life of its own, going platinum, spawning spin-off albums and staying at the top of the country charts for the past year, despite virtually no radio play. Its "Man of Constant Sorrow" theme song has led millions to suddenly discover Ralph Stanley.
"It's really done me a lot of good," Stanley says modestly from his farm in Coeburn, Va., a few miles from where he was born in 1927. "I did that 'O Death' a cappella in the movie and it's really got big for me. It's put me before a lot of people that I never was before, so many more people [have] listened to me and heard me."
The irony is that Stanley, unfazed by fashion, has been making this same music virtually unchanged all his life.
Following World War II, Ralph and his older brother, Carter, began performing throughout the South as the Stanley Brothers. As for many rural families, music making was a regular household activity. Their father, Lee, sang traditional songs like "Man of Constant Sorrow." Carter took up the guitar at 13, while Ralph learned to play clawhammer-style banjo from their mother, Lucy.
After Ralph's discharge from the Army, the boys began playing live on local radio broadcasts, which generated evening shows at schools and church halls. They followed the musical model of Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, as well as his earlier Monroe Brothers group of the 1930s, and local favorites such as J.E. Mainer and the Mountaineers. Their band became the Clinch Mountain Boys, after the western Virginia hills where they grew up.
The Stanley Brothers were one of the tops acts in bluegrass when Carter died of cancer in 1966 at the age of 41. Ralph, who sang tenor to Carter's lead and lacked his brother's more natural stage presence, decided he had to continue the only job he had known for the last 20 years (aside from a few miserable weeks working in an auto plant in Detroit). Devastated by his brother's early death, Ralph Stanley chose to return to his roots.
"After my brother died, I think I took it more into old times than when we did it and I think that's paid off for me," he says while his grandchildren play in the background.
Stanley also added a cappella gospel songs to the bluegrass repertoire, the kind he grew up singing as a Primitive Baptist, a faith he still embraces.
"I like to sing gospel," he explains. "That's one thing I never did with my brother, so I added that on. I was raised on gospel. I think anybody enjoys gospel music that's got any heart in 'em."
By the '90s Stanley's uniqueness and longevity began to be recognized. Northwestern University literature professor John Wright authored a biography, Traveling the High Way Home. For Stanley's 1992 Saturday Night & Sunday Morning and the 1998 Clinch Mountain Country, guest artists from Dwight Yoakam and Emmylou Harris to George Jones and Bob Dylan lined up to sing with and pay homage to the master. Yoakam, in the documentary The Ralph Stanley Story, compared Stanley's voice to "an archangel back on this earth," saying his singing is "ancient, timeless and echoes with the spirit of everyone who's ever gone before him in these hills and mountains."
For the past five years, Stanley's son, dubbed Ralph II and now 22 years old, has been the lead singer in the band.
"I'm real proud of Ralph," the elder Stanley says. "He's doing a good job and I really enjoy singing with him. I sung with my brother so long and lost him, and now someone's come back to sort of replace him and it makes me feel good."
Looking back at a lifetime of music, including 55 years of touring and more than 150 albums, Stanley says, "Well, you know of late, a year or so ago or two years, and then when the movie came out, there was so many thousands and millions of people that heard me that hadn't heard me before. And a lot of 'em liked it when they had a chance to hear it. I just wish it would have happened 30 years ago. He [Carter] would have really liked it. He'd have been glad."