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By Lauren Wise
The good doctor should know. In many ways, Ralph Stanley is the last of a line; when Bill Monroe passed in 1996, Stanley became the sole living witness to an entire branch of modern music history. For the past 50-odd years it's been regional fan bases, not a cohesive commercial industry, keeping music like Ralph Stanley's alive and thriving. Largely absent from national radio airwaves even before the advent of the modern Nashville sound, traditional mountain music went through its changes at church socials, and in smaller broadcasting studios such as the one featured in O Brother. Fingerpicking styles and songs were passed along within families and among performers at folk music festivals. Particularly in today's sanitized country music climate, mountain music can't even claim a token slot on most stations, a state of affairs which Stanley will readily corroborate. "No, it sure can't," says Stanley somberly. But his judgment is equally quick and characteristically mild: "I don't have but one thing to say about the people that don't play that music," he continues firmly, "they ain't hurting nobody but theirselves. And it don't bother me a bit, because if people can't hear my music on the radio, why, they'll come out to see me and hear it. That's the way I look at it."
And so they have, for more than half a century; but with the release of O Brother, Stanley might find his crowds a bit younger and hipper than in previous years -- to their benefit, of course. The good news is that with his many accomplishments and lasting influence already a matter of record, Stanley is safely out of the reach of the risks attendant on being this month's musical flavor. For young bluegrass musicians, especially, the influence of Ralph Stanley has been immediate and enduring, particularly since the death of his brother Carter.
Carter Stanley, Ralph's longtime collaborator, passed away after a long period of ill health in 1966; he was barely 41 years old. Following his brother's passing, Ralph worried hard over how to continue his own musical projects. Finally, he came across two young men from Kentucky, bluegrass wunderkind Ricky Skaggs and an almost preternaturally talented singer named Keith Whitley. With Skaggs and Whitley, Stanley formed the first incarnation of the Clinch Mountain Boys, the name given to his post-Stanley Brothers rotating band outlet. Since then, though the Clinch Mountain Boys' roster has changed repeatedly, the slots have been filled by stellar invited players, age irrelevant. "I gave Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley their first jobs," Stanley says proudly. "Keith Whitley sung lead for me for about seven years . . . oh, we did a bunch of tapes then, I'd say about six or seven albums' worth."
Whitley in particular was a kindred spirit to Stanley, though the young man was nearly 30 years his junior. Although he released several solo albums following his stint in the Clinch Mountain Boys, Whitley never achieved the fame he deserved, partially because at heart he was a country traditionalist pushed into uncomfortable pop formats. He hated the slick production his records often received; and, like Carter Stanley, Keith Whitley died young, at 44. Man of Constant Sorrow features several of Whitley's vocal contributions to Stanley's performances, including a full-harmony rendition of "O Death" on which, interestingly, Stanley sings the part of the fearful mortal while young Whitley takes the role of the bone collector -- an especially poignant moment on an album filled with songs about crossing Jordan.
Of course, Man of Constant Sorrow also contains a traditional version of the title cut, which plays a central role and receives a bluesy guitar workout in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Again the spirit of the elder Stanley raises its head; Carter's arrangement of the song is one of several versions heard in the film. "Carter and me both arranged 'Constant Sorrow,' and I've been singin' it myself for about the last 55 years," says Stanley. "But the first I heard of that song was when my father sung it. After that, Carter and me, we arranged it. It's done a little different on the soundtrack, more upbeat."
With good reason, then, the echo of Ralph Stanley's voice inhabits the song even in its updated version. For years it's been a staple of his shows; the lonesome tale of a drifter who says "goodbye to old Kihn-tucky" and longs only to meet his friends "on that other shore" seems to encapsulate many of Stanley's recurrent themes -- travel, survival, heartache and forgiveness. You can hear the resonance of those themes when he speaks lovingly of his brother:
"Carter was a great man in this music, he done a lot for it, he wrote a lot of good songs, and it's . . . well, it's just a pity that he couldn't've stayed around. He'd've enjoyed it."
Likely he would have. And if this latest brief moment in Stanley's long and accomplished career introduces his talents to another generation, so will many more people. As he put it recently in the title of an album of old-time hymns, Ralph Stanley's spent the better part of his time on Earth preaching the gospel, working in anticipation of the coming night. One could sure do worse.
The man of constant sorrow -- a lesson for us all -- finds reasons to push on.