When Joel and Ethan Coen enlisted T Bone Burnett to assemble a soundtrack for their 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the result was a film music phenomenon. What Saturday Night Fever did for disco and The Big Easy did for Cajun and zydeco, O Brother accomplished for the mostly bluegrass, old-timey, country and blues performers on its soundtrack. But even more than with those popular movies, the music of O Brother outstripped its source. Burnett himself has said that he believes one of the biggest accomplishments of O Brother was directing renewed attention to Ralph Stanley.
"I don't think anybody expected it to get that big," says Stanley about the soundtrack. "I thought it would do good, but I'm surprised it's done so well, and done so much for this type of music. But of course it's a good movie, too."
Stanley is speaking from his home in Dickenson County, Va. It's the waning hours when daylight has passed over the mountains, the time when the gentlemanly Stanley says he prefers to do these types of interviews -- perhaps, one suspects, because he's got better things to do during the day. But the interview requests are coming more often, as Stanley keeps bringing his old sounds to new places. In fact, as far as Stanley can remember, this Jazz Fest show is the first time he's brought his Clinch Mountain Boys to New Orleans, although he does recall playing in "smaller places" that surround the city.
"The first time we went through there would have been maybe '59, '60, or somewhere like that," he says. "I know we went through the city one night, with all four windows down. You could stick your hand out the window and it would nearly burn you, it was so hot."
When Stanley returns home from events such as Jazz Fest, his life clearly revolves around his Virginia birthplace, his family and friends, and his Primitive Baptist church. He grew up here, and it's here that his mother tuned his first banjo when he was a child.
From the beginning, he says, he set out to make his own sound. "When I started out, I saw that this three-finger style was what they were doing," he says. "I just picked it the way I felt it, and that's the way it came out. I never tried to copy anybody at all, and that's why it sounds different. It's mine."
Stanley places himself apart from other pioneering banjo pickers like Snuffy Jenkins and Earl Scruggs. The Stanley style is more simple, more on the melody. "I try to play the banjo exactly like I speak a word," is how he puts it. And he's a man who doesn't waste words.
Maybe his approach didn't make him a country star, but Stanley's recordings with his brother, Carter Glen Stanley, are considered some of the finest old-time country sides ever issued, with voices rising in chilling harmonies on both traditional and original material -- songs about faith and betrayal, home and longing to return there, all wreathed in mountain laurel and wildwood blossom.
Carter died in 1966, and Ralph Stanley's band now includes his son, Ralph Jr. No harmonies sound quite like family harmonies, says Stanley. "I think father and son or brothers, I don't think you can beat 'em. They live alike, they think alike, they talk alike, and they're just raised up with the same meaning. And it just comes natural, you're blood kin."
With his son at his side, Stanley seems to have settled into his role as elder musical patriarch. Like Frank Sinatra in his twilight years, Stanley has recorded a series of duets albums. Unlike Sinatra's Duets, however, Stanley's collaborative albums such as Clinch Mountain Country and Clinch Mountain Sweethearts rank as unqualified artistic successes.
But although he is enjoying the rush of attention to the Stanley sound, he's not deluded about its future. "There's not anybody carrying on the old traditional sound that I know of, except my son and the young boys I have in my band," he says.
So he keeps going himself, he says, just so long as he can do his fans and his music justice. He has a new CD coming out shortly, called simply Ralph Stanley, produced by T Bone Burnett for Burnett's new DMZ label. On it, he goes as deep as he's ever gone. "I really went way back, farther than ever. It's really an old-timer. 'Barbara Allen,' 'Twelve Gates to the City,' stuff like that, a hundred years old and over."