In 2002, as he toured in the wake of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its incredibly successful American-roots soundtrack, Dr. Ralph Stanley, who began his musical career in the '40s as the banjo-picking half of the Stanley Brothers, told the Flyer that all this late-life attention had taken him completely by surprise.
"When we were recording for the soundtrack, I didn't have any idea that it would be so successful," Stanley said, beaming with pride. "This old-time music was never put out where people could hear it. It was put out, but not to where millions of listeners could hear it. And when they finally heard it, I think they enjoyed it."
That was quite an understatement. O Brother's popularity reinvigorated the American folk-music scene and shed light into the darker corners of traditional mountain and gospel music. In spite of Stanley's influential banjo style and the Stanley Brothers' haunting minor-key harmonies, Stanley's music had remained just outside the reach of popular audiences, obscured by the looming shadow of bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe. Suddenly, as the millennium turned, Stanley's name became a household word, and he was transformed into the tirelessly touring elder statesman of authentic American music.
Now, at the age of 82, Stanley continues to tour, and he will drop in on the Memphis in May barbecue fest on Friday to sing musical treasures like "O Death," "Little Glass of Wine," and "Nine Pound Hammer."
Ralph Stanley, Friday, May 15th, 7:30 p.m. at the Memphis in May World Championship
Barbecue Cooking Contest. $8