Brother, Dear Brother

Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley haunts the Coen Brothers' latest opus and carries on his family's rich musical legacy

First and always, it was that voice, a sound that seemed to have traveled 500 years to get here. A clean, high tenor that indulged in no tricks or frills to make its point, but could hint at a cry or a prayer with just a subtle shift. A voice that sounded like it had emerged straight from the hills, the rivers and valleys of rural Virginia, which was where the Stanley Brothers, Ralph and Carter, laid down the template for American bluegrass nearly 60 years ago.

Carter Stanley, born in 1925, preceded Ralph into the world by two years. From their earliest days, the Stanley boys were surrounded by music; their father was a singing man who taught the old tunes to his sons, and their mother was adept at the clawhammer, or "frailing," banjo method, a fingerpick-and-strum technique closely related to the African-American folk patterns. Ralph learned to play banjo from his mother. He and Carter, who turned out to be a gifted arranger and composer as well as a stringed-instrument whiz, were performing out of a radio station in Bristol, Virginia, in the mid-1940s. Soon they began recording for a variety of labels including Rich-R-Tone and Columbia, for whom they delivered a seminal series of bluegrass recordings between 1949 and 1952.

These were the earliest days of mass-marketed country music. As the Stanley Brothers, Carter and Ralph marked out a corner of the country-bluegrass circuit that was theirs alone. At the time, only Bill Monroe was as popular and influential; but Monroe's roots were more firmly traceable to the "blue yodel" tradition that Jimmie Rodgers had developed a couple of decades earlier. The Stanley Brothers sang songs of death and redemption, of sinners lost and the good shepherd searching the hillside, lest any soul should go astray. Like that of their spiritual forebears the Carter Family, the Stanley Brothers' music was steeped in the symbols of apocalyptic Christianity, providing an audible link between the Appalachian shoutin' gospel and the more narrative, secular folk influences in bluegrass music.

What's up, doc?: Musical Ph.D. Ralph Stanley.
What's up, doc?: Musical Ph.D. Ralph Stanley.
Ralph Stanley's music plays a pivotal role in the Coen Brothers' Odyssey-gone-to-Mississippi travelogue O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
Ralph Stanley's music plays a pivotal role in the Coen Brothers' Odyssey-gone-to-Mississippi travelogue O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
Stanley and singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale (background), with whom he collaborated on 1999's I Feel Like Singing Today.
Stanley and singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale (background), with whom he collaborated on 1999's I Feel Like Singing Today.

But it was the voice, Ralph Stanley's unmistakable and unforgettable instrument, that became the cornerstone of the Stanley Brothers' sound. Like Muddy Waters' was to the blues, Ralph Stanley's voice was not simply one example of mountain music; to many listeners it became so intimately associated with the genre that it simply was mountain music itself.

Once heard, Stanley's high lonesome tenor is impossible to forget. It's a voice that seems to come from no single throat at all; rather, it just infuses the air, materializing for a moment and then drifting away, the sound of hundreds of years of trouble appearing briefly, bearing witness, then receding back into the mountain from which it came.

Think this is hyperbole? When T-Bone Burnett was constructing the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Joel and Ethan Coen's Odyssey-gone-to-Mississippi travelogue, he set out to collect new recordings of traditional American songs, "Angel Band," "Down to the River to Pray," "Keep on the Sunny Side" and so forth -- straight upbeat gospel, for the most part. But for the film's single truly malevolent moment, a midnight Klan rally assembled on the occasion of the lynching of a young black man, the producers called on Ralph Stanley to deliver an a cappella performance of "O Death," an ancient song presenting a dialogue between the Hooded One and a man he's come to collect: "My name is Death, none can excel/I hold the key to Heaven or Hell/I'll tie your tongue so you can't talk/I'll stiffen your limbs 'til you can't walk/This very hour, come and go with me"; "O Death, O Death/Won't you spare me over 'til another year?"

It's utterly hellish, that scene, that sound. And all of a sudden, people who never thought they enjoyed bluegrass music in their lives are taking notice of Ralph Stanley.

Dr. Stanley himself -- in addition to his membership in the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, Stanley holds an honorary doctorate in music from Lincoln Memorial University and was the first recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities Traditional American Music Award in 1985 -- is happy to oblige. Man of Constant Sorrow, a new Rebel Records compilation drawn from his years of work with the Clinch Mountain Boys, is something like the 150th album entry in Stanley's catalogue. 1998's critically acclaimed double-CD Clinch Mountain Country saw Stanley joined by a who's who of musical luminaries, including Dwight Yoakam and Bob Dylan, a longtime self-proclaimed Ralph Stanley fan. Released ahead of schedule to answer a reinvigorated demand for Stanley's work, sparked by its prominent use in the Coens' film, Man of Constant Sorrow is a helpful (if, at 34 minutes, criminally brief) introduction to Stanley's art, including several renditions of songs featured in O Brother.

Scant weeks from his 74th birthday, Stanley finds himself in the midst of touring in support of Man of Constant Sorrow, averaging two to four shows per week. "We're doing all right," he reports from a hotel in Tucson. "We've had good weather, made it okay so far." On the 17th of February, he's slated to perform on A Prairie Home Companion, a stage he's looking forward to visiting. "I'll be singing 'O Death,'" he says brightly. "A lot of people, they've never really sat down and listened to this music, but the movie, that O Brother, it's gonna bring a lot of attention to this music. And the Clinch Mountain Country, where all those country singers sung with me, that woke a few people up, too. Bluegrass music is comin' right up now, right on top. There's several young people coming into this type of music. It's just a good, down-to-earth music. A lot of the older people have enjoyed it through the years, and they've passed it on down to their children. A lot more people have heard it lately, and when you hear it, why, it's like going to Florida and gettin' sand in your shoes. You get to where you want to hear it more, and you know, it sticks with you."

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.

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