Banjos on the Bayou
As a movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a moderately successful retelling of Ulysses set in the depression-era Deep South filtered through the warped minds of the Coen brothers. What drove the story was the period music, an eclectic mix of bluegrass, traditional country, blues, field hollers, old-time and gospel tunes. The über-retro soundtrack of new and vintage recordings, helmed by roots-music maven T-Bone Burnett, brought together a wide array of performers -- from 75-year-old bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley to alt-country queen Emmylou Harris to the singin' and prayin' little girls known as the Peasall Sisters.
But Nostradamus himself could not have predicted that the hodgepodge compilation would go seven times platinum, win a slew of awards and single-handedly revive interest in old-timey music, sending droves of pickers out to find a new banjo and perfect their high, lonesome yodels. The success inspired a small concert tour and video featuring artists from the soundtrack and like-minded brothers and sisters. Now it's gone even bigger, and the Down from the Mountain tour is the most unlikely outdoor shed show this summer.
"I think everyone has been surprised by this, and I'm glad to have been a part of it," Stanley says from the road. His grandfatherly speaking voice is far removed from his trademark high tenor, the hoarse and ethereal moan responsible for the record's chill-inducing a cappella version of "O Death." When Stanley asks the grim reaper to spare him over for one more year, it's with such conviction that you almost want to give him a few from your own life span. "It's just down-to-earth and good music, different from what they call country today. I think people like the pleasant change."
Chris Hirsch, host of KPFT's The Bluegrass Zone radio show and member of Lone Star Bluegrass, agrees. "People are bored with the artificial, mechanical country music today and are turning to natural, acoustic sounds," he says.
Ironically, mainstream Nashville -- all of it save the radio industry, which watched in dismay as the album sold millions without its support -- has embraced this "alternative" country, awarding the O Brother soundtrack Album of the Year honor at both the Grammys and the CMA awards. Septuagenarian Stanley even took the Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal -- his first ever. "Yes, I'm this hot new singer," Stanley chuckles. "I've been blessed to have a long career, and to have this happen now, everything is getting even better."
Still playing more than 150 shows a year, he's also been heard recently on three other records and his most recent, the simply titled Ralph Stanley. More subtle and minimal than his frenetic live shows with the Clinch Mountain Boys, the album runs the gamut from odes to Jesus to bloody tales of infidelity and revenge. In the latter camp, there's a Shakespearean murder ballad in which the narrator, finding his wife in bed with her lover, runs them both through with a sword, then decapitates his bride and kicks her head against the wall. Take that, Eminem!
"This record takes things even further back than what I normally do," he says, though there has always been something almost medieval about his musical purity.
"The Stanley Brothers were a carry-over from a very old-time sound that made it different from Bill Monroe or Flatt and Scruggs," Hirsch says, name-checking the genre's other titans. He adds that, though many mistake bluegrass as perhaps an 18th- or 19th-century music, the style is fairly new; it wasn't really born until 1945. That's when Earl Scruggs joined Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, bringing with him a supercharged, three-fingered banjo sound that replaced the earlier clawhammer style, influencing Stanley a little bit and hosts of others a lot more. Stanley has always been the most traditional. "He never strayed from his style, and he deserves all the praise in the word for his tenacity.
"Houston has a small but very devoted bluegrass following," Hirsch adds. "I fully expect that the current craze will subside, but I look forward to the exciting new music that may result."
Someone who shares Hirsch's thoughts is Dan Tyminksi, the man who dubbed George Clooney's singing voice in the movie. A member of Allison Krauss's Union Station, Tyminski has enjoyed the biggest spotlight boost as a result of his Grammy-winning performance of the film's musical centerpiece, "Man of Constant Sorrow," a standard ironically most closely associated with Stanley. "I'm absolutely dumbfounded," Tyminski says from a tour stop. "I don't think anyone predicted it would be this big. Not even a fraction of it."
How Tyminski became the lead voice of the fictional Soggy Bottom Boys is one of those "right place, right time" stories. Krauss and the boys were auditioning for a spot on the soundtrack when Burnett asked Tyminski to come back the next day to take a crack at the still-uncast number. He wound up nabbing the job and a place in music history.
Stanley's place has long been secure. When asked what his late brother Carter Stanley (who performed with him from 1946 until his premature death 20 years later) might think of the resurgence of bluegrass in 2002, Ralph Stanley is exuberant. "Carter would be tickled pink!" And while this "hot, new singer" plans to slow down a bit next year, he does know what he wants audiences to take away from the show.
"I want them to think that this is the best music they've ever heard," he says, Then, with a touch of salesmanship perfected from countless old radio programs, he adds, "We'd like to invite everyone to come out to see the show. I recommend it highly."
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