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Country King

The bluegrass music of Ralph Stanley is finding a new audience, thanks to the sales of the 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' soundtrack album.


The Buena Vista Social Club wrote the book on how to package a bunch of reveredelders and bring them from a roots-music niche into the light of the mainstream. But now it looks as if there's a U.S. variation on that Cuban mission.

The soundtrack album from the Coen brothers' film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," a collection of vintage and newly recorded versions of traditional Southern songs, has claw-hammered its way to No. 23 on the national album chart, with sales of more than 200,000 copies--a surprisingly strong penetration for a set of acoustic folk music selections by artists with little name recognition beyond their faithful.

The "O Brother" counterpart to such Buena Vista septuagenarian celebrities as Ibrahim Ferrer is Ralph Stanley, who sings one of the highlights of the album: "O Death," an a cappella plea with the Reaper to "spare me over for another year." In the movie, the song is delivered by the hooded leader of a KKK-like gathering in preparation for an execution.

How did Stanley feel about the disquieting scene?

"Well, it was all right, I guess," he says.

Nearing his 74th birthday, Stanley is a laconic icon, but give him a break. He'll play upward of 180 dates this year with his group, the Clinch Mountain Boys, including two sold-out shows on Sunday at McCabe's. The traveling is still hard, he says, but modern bus touring is an improvement over the early days.

"I've got a good bed to sleep in, go to bed any time I want to. That makes it better than what I used to do years and years ago, travelin' in a car. That was a killer."

It was the rigors of the road that caused the musician to retire briefly in the early 1950s. That was a time when the Stanley Brothers--Ralph and his older brother Carter--were recording a string of classic bluegrass records.

They'd burst onto the scene from Dickenson County, Va., in the mid-'40s, when singer-mandolinist Bill Monroe was transforming traditional Appalachian music into a modernized form that would soon be a genre unto itself: bluegrass.

Breaking From Monroe Sound With Own Music

The Stanleys, with Carter singing lead and playing guitar and Ralph on harmony vocals and banjo--stuck close to the Monroe model at first, but they had their own personality.

"To me the Stanley Brothers were the punks of traditional music," says T Bone Burnett, the Los Angeles-based musician who oversaw the "O Brother" soundtrack and produced Stanley's new version of "O Death."

"They came screamin' out of Virginia with a wild energy that had as much to do with Elvis Presley and the Sex Pistols as with Jimmie Rodgers," he adds. "There was a serious danger to their music. I think that's the first time that happened."

Stanley has his own explanation for the Stanleys' style.

"We just sang exactly the way we felt. It came out just natural, and we didn't know where it would hit or miss," he says. "We really didn't know what a style was at that time. We just sung, and that was it. I believe that's why I've been in this business for 55 years. We did our own. We sang like the Stanley Brothers."

Next to Monroe--a onetime rival with whom they later both briefly played, and who once suggested they unite in a group--the Stanleys established themselves as the most significant institution in bluegrass, and they kept going strong during the folk revival of the early '60s.

Ralph Became Leader of Clinch Mountain Boys

After Carter died of cancer in 1966 at age 41, Ralph continued leading the Clinch Mountain Boys, which at different points included such country artists-to-be as Ricky Skaggs and the late Keith Whitley. The current lineup features his son, Ralph Stanley II, on guitar and vocals.

One indicator of his stature--in addition to such honors as last year's "Living Legend" medal from the Library of Congress, is the list of singers who lined up to perform with him on the 1998 album "Clinch Mountain Country." It included Bob Dylan, Vince Gill, George Jones, Porter Wagoner, Dwight Yoakam and Patty Loveless. Stanley is currently recording an album of duets with some of Nashville's top female artists for release later this year.

All of which makes you wonder why he spends half the year away from his home in Coeburn, Va., just four miles from where he was born and raised.

"I'm doin' fairly good for an old man," says the current album chart's most unlikely occupant. "I'm still on the road pretty regular. It's not bad. I don't know what else I'd do, I've been at it so long."


Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, Sunday at McCabe's, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, 7 and 9 p.m. Sold out. (310) 828-4403.

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