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Ralph Stanley

A 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 a vocalist.

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.


--Daniel Schulman

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[email protected] | July 2002 | Issue 28
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