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.