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O Brother, Ralph Stanley is a sweetheart

By Jeffrey B. Remz, November 2001

After more than 50 years on the front line of bluegrass and old time music, one could expect Ralph Stanley to take life a little bit easier at 74.

No such "luck" for the man considered the successor to Bill Monroe in carrying the mantle of bluegrass, participating in the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, which doubtlessly has furthered his career, and releasing albums of his own, including "Clinch Mountain Sweethearts" this fall.

Not to mention touring on around the country and participating in more recording sessions.

"I probably have a little bit left in me," says Stanley, joking during a telephone interview from his Coeburn, Va. home the night before he is heading off yet again with a gig in West Virginia.

Of course, the man who was one-half of The Stanley Brothers with the late Carter Stanley, is no Johnny Come Lately to the scene.

But while he has commanded respect for years, that plus his name recognition clearly increased as of December 2000 when the "O Brother" soundtrack was released. The music with the likes of Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and the Soggy Bottom Boys participating was not so much of a bluegrass album as old time, acoustic based, spare sounding mountain music with a touch of that high lonesome sound.

Stanley's version of "O Death" (titled without the "h" in "Oh" on the soundtrack) plus one of the Stanley's best known songs, "Angel Band," are on the soundtrack, which has sold millions and been a surprise hit, being number one on the country album charts for almost six months without the benefit of play on country radio.

Stanley was more than a little surprised with the success of the album.

"I don't think anybody expected it to sell two million copies right quick and go ahead of any country star in the business. So, I don't think anybody thought that. I didn't know really when it was first cut. I don't think anybody knew. It just sounds so wonderful. It's done so much for old time music."

"That just about doubled my number of fans," he says.

Why does Stanley think the soundtrack has done so well?

"People heard it. They advertised it, and they exposed it until millions of people who had never heard this kind of music before (heard it). I believe that that's one reason. If you don't hear something, you don't know if you like it or not. This old time music has never been exposed or publicized until the film, 'O Brother.' They put it out where there the public could hear it."

"I think it's pure music that (people have) been awaiting to hear and wanting to hear. I believe they wanted to hear a change and let the world know they liked this old time music."

Ralph and brother Carter became a performing duo in December 1946, playing on radio in Norton, Va. and then Bristol. Due to the latter station's powerful signal, the Stanleys brand of bluegrass became popular in a five-state area.

By the following year, the Stanleys, whose backing band was the Clinch Mountain Boys, recorded for Rich-R-Tone, an independent Tennessee label, which led to a deal with Columbia in 1948. The sound was characterized by Carter's leads, Ralph' tenor and a third vocal from Pee Wee Lambert.

The Stanleys recorded for Mercury from 1953-58, recording 45 songs considered by some to be the group's finest.

They recorded for a slew of labels in the late '50's and early '60's and did well at folk festivals and the college market due to the growth of folk in the 1960's.

But life as a duo ended on Dec. 1, 1966 with Carter's death at 41.

Ralph forged ahead as a solo act, singing leads more often than he did with his brother. At one point, Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs were in his band. Ralph continued releasing albums, mainly for Rebel Records. He also performed heavily on the bluegrass festival circuit.

On his latest full-length album, "Clinch Mountain Sweethearts" (Rebel), Stanley sticks to the segregation of the sexes. Last time around, he recorded "Clinch Mountain Sweethearts," which combined the talents of Stanley and a slew of performers like Patty Loveless, Jim Lauderdale, Marty Stuart, Travis Tritt, George Jones, Dwight Yoakam, Vince Gill, Joe Diffie, Diamond Rio, John Anderson, Junior Brown, Porter Wagoner, BR5-49, Kathy Mattea and Bob Dylan, an event Dylan called his career highlight.

The 36-song, 2-CD disc received lots of critical praise and brought Stanley to a broader audience.

But the job wasn't quite done.

Producer Bil VornDick says the reason for a follow-up was because on "the first project, we couldn't get everybody on because of scheduling. I thought of why not doing not doing a women's duet album with Ralph because that had never been done in the genre of music that he's in." '

"A lot of them have an a background in bluegrass even though they're in country," VornDick says of the singers.

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