Mountain Do

It's payback time for O Brother soundtrack star Ralph Stanley

DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN featuring Ralph Stanley, Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris, Norman & Nancy Blake, Bob neuwirth, chris thomas king, the Del Mccoury Band, the Whites, rhonda vincent, the PEASALL SISTERS and the Nashville Bluegrass band at the Air Canada Centre’s Sears Theatre (40 Bay), Wednesday (February 6), 8 pm. $39.50-$69.50. 416-870-8000.

Rating: NNNNN

after years of being shut out by the country music industry at large, it’s payback time for Ralph Stanley, and he’s loving every minute of it. Since he began playing traditional American folk music over a half-century ago, whole music genres have come and gone. He’s seen the advent of country, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll, yet the promise of neither fame nor fortune could lure Stanley from the old-timey straight and narrow he first set out on with elder sibling Carter as the Stanley Brothers back in the mid-40s.

The heart, soul and lead singing voice of the hugely popular O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Universal) soundtrack will likely have much more to celebrate than his 75th birthday at the end of this month. Two days after he blows out the candles, Stanley will be at the Grammy Awards with nominations in four categories.

He’s the sentimental favourite to get the nod for his fabulous star-stacked duets disc, Clinch Mountain Sweethearts (Rebel), in the best-bluegrass-album category. O Brother has a good chance at best soundtrack, but it’ll be a huge upset if it’s named best overall album. And the odds are against Stanley in the best male country vocal performance, despite his hair-raising a cappella rendition of O Death for the O Brother film.

Stanley has been disappointed many times before, so he isn’t dusting off the mantle just yet. “Over the years I’ve been given all kinds of awards,” he says from his homestead in rural Virginia not far from where he was born, “and I’ve been nominated for Grammy Awards four times before.

“But the best vocal performance in the country category, heh, heh, that’s the one I’d really like to win.”

It was only last January that Stanley was finally welcomed into the Grand Ole Opry. And that was only with the help of a final-breath blessing from dying bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe. But for all the rough treatment, Stanley doesn’t sound the least bit bitter.

“I guess they think old-time music is just not bright enough. They didn’t separate our music from country until the mid-60s, when they started calling any group with a banjo or a fiddle bluegrass. But really it’s the same mountain-style music I’ve always played. To me there was only ever one bluegrass singer, and that’s Bill Monroe.”

The real vindication for Stanley is the phenomenal sales of the O Brother soundtrack — which shifted 4 million units in 12 months — proving that his old-time mountain music could be a smashing success without the support of commercial country radio.

“Even though public and community radio stations played the music,” he chuckles, “the big country radio stations didn’t do a thing about it. That may look bad on them someday.”

Likewise, the mainstream media have been reluctant to embrace the O Brother phenomenon.

Dumbfounded critics have incorrectly classified his music as bluegrass and shrugged it off as a cultural quirk like the mid-60s bluegrass craze associated with the Bonnie And Clyde soundtrack. That’s easier than admitting it’s simply great music, sung with the sort of genuine passion you never hear on commercial radio any more.

Stanley confesses his biggest surprise has been how these ancient songs of death and despair have connected with the kids.

“Some folks came up to me with their four-year-old son after a show the other day,” recalls Stanley. “They said he won’t go to sleep now without hearing O Death.

“I can’t say exactly what is that’s getting to people, I just put everything I had into those words. I’m begging, “Please, don’t take me now.’ That’s the truth. I’m livin’ that song.”

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