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Old Man of the Mountain 

Ralph Stanley does it the old-time way

If Bill Monroe is the father of bluegrass, then Ralph Stanley is godfather. But Stanley says the music he does predates old Bill's blues.

"Back when I first started, they didn't even call it bluegrass," says Stanley in a phone conversation from his home in Coeburn, VA. "They just called it old-time hillbilly music. 'Bout 1965, I believe, they started calling it bluegrass. I'd been playing since '46."

Stanley, who plays at the Neighborhood Theatre on Jan. 13, acknowledges the changes in traditional mountain music, and points out that he doesn't particularly care for most of them: "I think that there's people that calls it bluegrass that don't belong to call it that, and I just prefer to keep mine out of that category."

Old-time, mountain music is how Stanley has described his sound, which can be attributed to something in the air or water or Stanley's upbringing in the hills of Virginia. "I think it's more down to earth. You can tell," he says of the music that's made him a country-music icon. "I mean, it's just the feel of it -- makes you feel humble, I think."

Stanley has helped spread that humility worldwide, in large part through the success of the Coen Brothers' 2001 film O Brother, Where Art Thou, which led to the release of the Stanley collection Man of Constant Sorrow. The title cut and Stanley's rendition of "Oh Death" rekindled mainstream interest in mountain music. Stanley was subsequenetly recognized for his influence on country music, winning three Grammys in 01 and 02. For his work on the O Brother soundtrack, he beat out both Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson for Best Country Male Vocalist Performance and Album of the Year. Stanley's Lost in the Lonesome Pines collaboration with Statesville-born songwriter Jim Lauderdale won Best Bluegrass Album the following year.

But Stanley's music has long been revered and respected. The recordings he did as the Stanley Brothers with his brother Carter set a standard for old-time music that has never been equaled. When Carter died in 1966, Ralph took his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, to the top of his profession with his high, clear tenor and distinctive clawhammer banjo style.

In 1978, Stanley began breaking in another family member -- son Ralph Stanley II. "I knew he was interested when he was born," the elder Stanley says. "You could just tell it." He recalls his first recording with his son at age three: "It was just a song called 'I Ain't Lost' . . . His line was 'I ain't lost,' and he said, 'I ain't wost.'" He says Ralph II learned quickly from that point: "When he was around 12, he became more interested and started to sing and play the guitar and learn more. When he became 16, why, I put him on full time."

The younger Stanley is now 27 and has been out in the world a bit, but Dad says his son's never expressed a desire to go in any other musical direction. "He likes traditional," Stanley says. "That's all he wants to do. He likes traditional country music, George Jones-style, Keith Whitley -- things like that. And other than what I do, he don't listen to no bluegrass." Ralph II, who is currently the Clinch Mountain Boys' lead singer and rhythm guitarist, kept the band going while his dad was touring with the O Brother project. The younger Stanley occasionally headlines his own shows, backed by his father's band.

Other artists have adapted the Stanley style, but the good doctor has never ventured into other kinds of music. "I think you've got to have your heart and soul in it to give it justice," he Stanley says. "And I don't have it -- the newgrass or nothing like that, rock & roll. I don't feel like I'm qualified for that." For those who would like to qualify to play with Stanley, he has one major requirement. "Well, it makes it a lot better if he likes my songs, my style of singing," he says dryly.

Jim Lauderdale fits that bill, and will be appearing with Stanley at the Neighborhood Theatre. Stanley says he likes to sing with Lauderdale, even though Lauderdale "puts just a little bit of different flavor with it. I think him and me phrase and harmonize real well together."

And when the harmonizing is over, Stanley wants folks to remember his musical integrity. "I'd like to be remembered as a straight man, believed in what I was doing. And I wouldn't want to see my music ever abused," he says. "It's made me what I am, and what I've got, and I respect it with all my heart."

Ralph Stanley plays the Neighborhood Theatre Jan. 13, at 8pm, with Jim Lauderdale. Tickets are $25, available from www.neighborhoodtheatre.com.

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