Sure, there have been unlikelier comebacks, but not many. Not since Lightnin' Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt were rediscovered in the 1960s has an artist's ascent out of relative obscurity been more dramatic than Ralph Stanley's rocket shot from bluegrass festival elder statesman to country music chart-topper.
Over the course of the past year, the 76-year-old has been profiled in The New Yorker, Spin and the Oxford American. His "O Death" and "Angel Band" (with his late brother Carter) were vital contributions to the platinum-selling O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which won the CMA award for Album of the Year. He's been the subject of numerous documentaries. His key chain jangles with keys to cities from coast to coast. He's done Letterman. He found the time to release the follow-up documentary to O Brother (Down from the Mountain) and the Clinch Mountain Sweethearts duet CD. And oh yeah, at an age when most folks have settled into the front-porch rocking chair, Stanley has crisscrossed the country to play about 150 gigs.
Like his rival the late Bill Monroe, Stanley has the face of a U.S. president, albeit one from around 1815. It wasn't enough to get Stanley elected, however, when he made a bid for public office last year in his native southwestern Virginia mountains. No man is a hero in his own hometown.
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Everywhere else is another story, though. While there are other bluegrass/mountain music singers who can sing as high as Stanley's tenor, none sound half so lonesome. Maybe that's because he's at the top of the mountain, all alone.