O Life 

Ralph Stanley still stands tall and sings deep.

Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley isn't older than death yet, but the 78-year-old singer regularly goes toe-to-toe with the Grim Reaper and comes out on top. In 1999, his spectral, a cappella rendition of "O Death" for the watershed O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack introduced Stanley to several generations of music lovers who weren't even alive when he started performing. The album -- also including "Angel Band," the signature Stanley Brothers tune cut in December 1955 -- went on to sell millions of copies, and the subsequent boom of interest in bluegrass and old-time music reenergized Ralph's career. He won two Grammys for O Brother (including Best Country Music Male Vocal), bought a Mercedes with his royalty money, and jumped from headlining bluegrass festivals to selling out major concert halls around the world.

Stanley has always been a prolific recording artist, but since this resurgence, he has maintained a startling rate of productivity both in the studio and on the road. Along with his first true solo album -- 2002's Ralph Stanley, a stark bare-bones collection of the mountain ballads he grew up on -- he's collaborated with Nashville songwriter Jim Lauderdale, recorded an album of sweetheart duets with folks like Maria Muldaur and Iris DeMent, and contributed to several gospel records. His voice is fraying and lacks the spine-tingling high end that made his early work so thrilling, but it's been replaced by a depth of feeling and a raw, unvarnished emotional power one seldom hears in any kind of popular music. His is the sound of the life-and-death struggle we all engage in with every breath. Stanley faces the abyss for us and returns to sing about it.

Stanley was born in 1927, two years after his brother, Carter. They grew up during the Depression in the mountain country around Dickenson County, Virginia, gravitating toward music at a young age. The Stanley Brothers Band debuted in 1946 and started recording for Columbia three years later, with high, lonesome vocal harmonies and lightning-fast instrumental work that soon defined the sound of bluegrass. When Carter died in 1966, Ralph changed the band's name to Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys and delved into the traditional songs of his youth, perhaps as a way to deal with his grief. The music got less flashy and noticeably sadder, reflecting the hard work and hard lives of the mountain people who keep traditional music alive to this day. It's still called bluegrass, but it goes farther back and far deeper than that, an ancient, achingly pure music as old as America itself, but unwilling to give up the ghost just yet.


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