It took a movie soundtrack for 74-year-old bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley to gain the attention he deserves. 

Mountain Music

Bluegrass luminary Ralph Stanley has performed on festival and theater stages around the world for more than five decades, and his heartfelt tenor has graced more than 170 recordings. He's also received an honorary music doctorate and has earned numerous awards during his career as a bluegrass pioneer. But it was not until his contributions to a popular movie soundtrack last year that his talents found the mainstream fans he's long deserved.

"People tell me they hadn't heard me but I've been around for 55 years," says the plain-spoken, 74-year-old banjo-playing singer, by phone recently from his home in the mountains of Southwest Virginia.

Stanley acknowledges that before the Cohen Brothers' movie "Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?" — or "Hey Brother, Where You At?" as Stanley has called it — the distribution of many of his recordings was limited.

Stanley is happy for the soundtrack's success, although he says that if his earlier recordings had the same kind of money behind them, more listeners would have heard him before now. "Maybe, if they coulda heard me, more people would have found out about [the music]," he reasons.

But if mass popularity was slow to come, Stanley has long been revered in the bluegrass community as one of the genre's earliest and best stylists. Performing in 1946 as the Stanley Brothers on a Bristol radio station with his brother Carter, the two quickly became rural Appalachia favorites. Columbia Records liked the Stanleys' lonesome blue-mountain music and signed them to a recording deal in 1947 that took them to a wider Southeast and mid-Atlantic audience through the '50s. In 1966, the Stanley Brothers, with a 21-day run through England and the continent, became the first bluegrass band to play for the European public.

Tragedy struck soon after that tour: Carter Stanley died. Ralph thought of giving up his music because he wasn't sure audiences would accept his reserved nature without his gregarious brother there to balance the act.

But after receiving 3,000 encouraging letters, Stanley decided to carry on, and he's been on the long performance road since. Throughout the '70s and '80s he played festivals nationwide, along the way helping future stars Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley get started in the business. More recently, he has received six Grammy nominations and has become the millennium's first Grand Ole Opry inductee. He also still performs 150 shows a year ranging from presidential inaugurations to rural bluegrass festivals.

But though he's earned his status as a bluegrass icon, Stanley closes with a singular stylistic viewpoint some might find surprising. "I don't think I play bluegrass music," he says. "I started playing old-time mountain music. That's still what I do."


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