There comes a moment in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen brothers’ dark comic fantasy about race, the South, and country music, where the laughter and hijinks come to an abrupt halt. It’s the scene where the convicts stumble upon a Klan rally out in the country in the middle of the night. A red-robed Klansman begins to sing, while two fiery torches behind him light up the night. His song, sung a cappella, is “Oh Death,” a number that dates back to the ’20s at least and probably further and in any case sounds as old as time. The singer pleads, in various ways and for several verses, for Death to spare him over for just another year. It’s the one moment in the movie where you sit up and think, this is real, this is life shaved down as close to the bone as it will go. It’s not just a chilling moment. It’s terrifying.
Some of the chill comes courtesy of those creepy Klan outfits, and credit, too, the Coens’ artistry. But mostly it’s the singer’s voice that gets you, like a cold wind over winter ground. There’s no kidding in that voice, and you don’t sit there listening and thinking thoughts about art, either. This is just the sound of the human spirit, clinging to life as hard as it can for as long it can. It’s a mesmerizing, indelible moment.
Ralph Stanley could do that to you.
For it was Stanley’s voice you hear in that scene and on the soundtrack album that almost singlehandedly jumpstarted the Americana and old-time craze that’s only gained steam since the soundtrack appeared in 2000. Oh Brother was certainly good for Stanley, giving the old-time musician a late career boost that allowed him to perform and record well into this century, almost to his death, which came for him this week. He was 89.
The one piece of fallout from the soundtrack that Stanley didn’t like much was that he got tagged as a bluegrass musician. Given that most people call anything with a banjo in it bluegrass, this was not surprising. And certainly, when Ralph and his brother, Carter, were working their way to success in the ’50s and ’60s, they rode the popularity of bluegrass as hard as they could. But his demurral was not just mere semantics. Ever since Carter’s death in 1966, Ralph Stanley had determinedly tugged his music back in the direction it came from, to the mountain country of southwestern Virginia, where clawhammer banjo and murder ballads and old fiddle tunes long predated the warp-speed, jazz inflected bluegrass popularized and perfected by Bill Monroe. By the time Stanley got through stripping away all traces of modernity from his music, it sounded like something not so much created as plucked from the very air and water and hills that had incubated it.
In his autobiography, Man of Constant Sorrow, Stanley tries to articulate the power of the unique music he made over the course of a long and productive career as a gifted singer, banjo player, and band leader, first as half of the Stanley Brothers, and then, after Carter’s death, as the leader for five decades of Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Finally, he nails it: "We were the last generation from these mountains to live from the earth," he says. "It was a hard life and there was a lot of suffering. But the music we made couldn't have come from any other place or time. The suffering was part of what made the music strong, and I reckon that's why it's lasted … What's real doesn't die."
In a world that’s always whittling the edges off of regionalism, where the city and "the sticks" resemble each other more by the day, Stanley wouldn’t even hire musicians who hailed from other states or regions. "All my men, even as far back as the days of the Stanley Brothers, come from pretty close by where I'm from and still live," he wrote. "It's not just ones from the North that don't fit in. It's anywhere outside Clinch Mountain Country [in southwestern Virginia]. With a man from another area of the country, well, he wouldn't speak his words like we do. He wouldn't phrase things the same way, and so he wouldn't be as easy to play with, and music's tough enough as it is." The Clinch Mountain Boys always sounded like they were from somewhere.
Music as raw and unvarnished as that of Ralph Stanley hardly ever finds a broad audience: the first time I ever heard him perform, sometime in the ’70s, he was playing at some volunteer fireman fundraiser in a school auditorium in western North Carolina—the only PA they had were those little box speakers on the wall that the principal used for announcements. He played halls and dives and schoolhouses a lot more than he played Carnegie Hall (in the rough and tumble world of the professional musician, there’s no telling what company you’ll keep: the finger snapping on the Stanley Brothers’ “Finger Popping Time” is supplied in part by James Brown’s band, who were recording in an adjacent studio). But he could captivate an audience in any of those places. His music was not slick, but he was no primitive—and certainly not immune to the blandishments of fame: he plainly treasured his honorary doctorate, to the point that he preferred being addressed as Dr. Ralph Stanley. He knew exactly what he was doing, and precisely what traditions he was not only tapping but nourishing and passing along to any willing to listen to music that never played for less than keeps. It was music he learned from his kin and his friends, music that mattered to him and that he could make matter to you.
In his autobiography, he recalls the day Carter, just a teenager, got his first guitar, a mail-order instrument from Montgomery Ward: “An instruction manual came with the guitar, but Carter threw it away. Books and formal training wouldn't do it any good; it just don't apply to the style of music in the mountains. Old-time music and old-time singing ain't something somebody teaches you in a class. It's bred into you; it comes out of the way you live.”