Volkswagen commercial aired a few years back; in it, a group
of twenty-somes travel a dark, desolate highway to the first
bars of Nick Drake's "Pink Moon." Not sure how many
VWs the commercial sold, but overnight Nick Drake went from
a long-dead, semi-obscure folkster to a "featured artist"
at Virgin Records. Ralph Stanley's recent success occurred
in a similarly haphazard fashion.
In the age of pre-fab pop bands, Stanley, 75, is an unlikely
candidate for stardom. His career got a jumpstart from the
O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, a phenomenon
in its own right, which has sold just under 6 million copies
to date. (His haunting a cappella rendition of "O Death"
won a Grammy.) It took over fifty years, 150 albums, and
countless touring miles, but now reporters are gobbling
up his story and talk shows are contacting his "people,"
like he's, well, Ryan Adams. Stanley is clearly as baffled
at the sudden attention as anyone else.
He got his start in 1946 playing local radio stations with
his brother Carter around their hometown in rural Virginia.
The pair, billed as the Stanley Brothers, played old time
mountain music - country which makes "country"
sound like a red-headed step child. After Carter's death
in 1966, Ralph kept their homegrown sound alive as a solo
performer and pulled together a back-up band, the Clinch
Mountain Boys. In bluegrass circles Stanley became a legend,
a pioneer in an ageless genre of music. As the folk revolution
came and went in the 60s, though, so did popular demand
for his style of music. That is, until now.
Stanley's new self-titled album is the inaugural release
on DMZ Records, a collaborative effort between O Brother
filmmakers the Coen brothers, and producer T. Bone Burnett,
the creative force behind the film's soundtrack. Tom Waits,
Bono, and Elvis Costello sit on the label's Board of Advisors.
When working with Stanley on the album, Burnett opted to
swap out the Clinch Mountain Boys and take a string-quartet
approach to his music, "to think of it as classical
music, to take a very intimate look at Ralph Stanley, who
he is and where his music comes from," said Burnett.
He gathered a group of bluegrass veterans to back Stanley
- Norman Blake, Mike Compton, Dennis Crouch, Stuart Duncan
- all of whom appeared on the O Brother soundtrack.
With a voice like the wind through a graveyard, Stanley
delivers a collection of songs - nine traditionals, a Hank
Williams cover, and an original - with the road-weary conviction
of a man who has seen it all and then some. Stanley sings
of false hearted lovers, sin, temptation, and kingdom come,
backed subtly by lolling bluegrass arrangements. The only
thing lacking is the rhythmic claw hammer banjo picking
Stanley is known for - he appears on this album solely as
For those who've yet to be acquainted with Stanley, his
latest provides a good introduction. Those already familiar
with his music will find Ralph Stanley is nothing new. Then
again, isn't that the point.