Yesterday, pioneering bluegrass artist Ralph Stanley died at age 89. The last time we talked with Stanley was in 2001, when then Statesman music writer, Michael Corcoran chatted with him about the history of bluegrass, his relationship with Bill Monroe and the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” a surprise sleeper hit in 2000.
Here’s Corcoran’s story, originally published November 29, 2001:
I’m always up for a friendly musical argument, but a few days ago when someone offhandedly dismissed my assertion that the surprising success of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack was a boon for bluegrass music, I just let it go. “There ain’t a stitch of bluegrass on the whole record, ” said the voice on the phone, refuting just about every review. But then, I wasn’t about to spar on the subject with Ralph Stanley, the last living bluegrass pioneer. It’s indisputable that the holy trinity of the form are Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers (Ralph’s sibling Carter Stanley died in 1966).”The ‘O Brother’ stuff is from earlier times, ” says Stanley, who at age 74 just released “Clinch Mountain Sweethearts, ” an album of duets with such female musical admirers as Dolly Parton, Iris DeMent and Joan Baez. ” ‘O Brother’ is full of that old-time mountain string band music, as well as some spirituals.” Stanley’s a capella version of “O Death, ” played in the background during the would-be lynching scene, goes back to the 19th century. The George Clooney lip-synced “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow, ” which follows the Stanley Brothers’ classic 1954 arrangement, is a traditional tune Ralph’s father used to hum around the house when the brothers were just boys.
Although it sounds like it’s been around as long as folks have inhabited the hills of Appalachia, bluegrass wasn’t invented until 1945, when a lightning quick banjo player named Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and, along with “Big Mon’s” frantic mandolin, Lester Flatt’s guitar runs and the flying fiddle of Chubby Wise, knocked mountain music into overdrive. On top of the playing were strident, aching “high lonesome” harmonies. This breakneck sound, which music archaeologist Alan Lomax termed the most substantial innovation in folk music in 500 years, was actually developed just a few years before rock ‘n’ roll.
When Ralph returned to Virginia from the service in 1946, he formed a band with his brother Carter, 22 months older, with the idea of putting a traditional stamp on this sensational new kind of music. “We always stayed true to the old-timey style, ” Stanley said from his home in Coeburn, Va., near the coal country where he grew up. “But we also loved what Bill Monroe was doing.”
Monroe, in fact, thought the Stanleys dug his style a little too much, accusing the brothers of being men of constant borrowing. Monroe became especially livid when, in 1948, the Stanley Brothers covered his racehorse song “Molly and Tenbrooks” and released it on the Rich-R-Tone label before Monroe’s version came out on Columbia. When Columbia signed the Stanleys in 1949, a steamed Monroe jumped to the Decca label.
“There was some bad blood and jealousy, ” Stanley recalled. “None of the three — us, Flatt & Scruggs (who split from Monroe in ’48) or Bill Monroe got along. But in the years before he died (in 1996), I didn’t have a better friend than Bill.” The former rivals even recorded together, on Stanley’s “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” LP in 1993. “I think that after a time Bill Monroe realized that we all had a place in that music.”
Such signature songs as “Rank Strangers, ” “The Fields Have Turned To Brown” and “The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn, ” showed the Stanley Brothers haunted by old mountain themes of loss, God and family. With Ralph Stanley slowly evolving from the down-home clawhammer style his mother taught him into a three-finger picker a la Scrugg, the Stanleys simmered where Monroe’s band blazed. “We started off with deep roots, ” says Stanley, “and we’ve never really changed.” After Carter died (Stanley says it was cancer; a recent article in Spin reports cirrhosis as the cause), Ralph went for an even more desolate sound.
One of the biggest fans of their mournful repertoire is Bob Dylan, who covered “Man of Constant Sorrow” on his first album and calls his ’97 duet with Stanley on “This Lonesome River” (for the Stanley duets album “Clinch Mountain Country”) the highlight of his career.
“That’s my religion, ” Dylan said of the Stanley Brothers’ music in a ’96 interview. “I believe in those songs.”
Another guy you don’t want to argue with.