By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

August 5, 2002

It's been a good couple of years for Ralph Stanley.

He became a star after more than 50 years in the music business, thanks to the success of the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack and the subsequent "Down From the Mountain" concert, documentary, CD and tour.

He appeared on the Country Music Awards, singing the stark, a capella "O Death," and on David Letterman.

And he won two Grammys this year, one for his part in the "O Brother" soundtrack, the other for best male country vocal performance. The competition included veterans Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, alternative country crooner Lyle Lovett, "New Country" kingpin Tim McGraw, and former Whiskeytown frontman and potential next-big-thing Ryan Adams.

"I've been nominated about six times, but that's my first win," Stanley says of the male vocal prize. "And that was the very Grammy that I wanted to win, but I didn't think I had a chance. That made me really stand tall, to win that in country music. That's why I wanted to win."

Mandolin ace Ricky Skaggs, who played in Stanley's band as a teenager, is thrilled.

"When Ralph Stanley walks on stage, it's like Elton John or Mick Jagger," Skaggs says. "It's so long overdue. He's 75 and going strong, buying new buses, I just can't believe it."

"Ralph Stanley is a treasure in America. If you could see Woody Herman or Dizzie Gillespie, or some of those guys that were great in their day and have added so much to music - like Lionel Hampton and these jazz guys we all grew up listening to - it's that equivalent."

Stanley takes it all in stride. It doesn't even bother him that "O Brother," bluegrass and mountain music still isn't played on mainstream country radio.

"That's something I never did worry too much about - big radio stations playing my music," he says. "Where you make your living is personal appearances. Then people know who you are. If they don't hear it every day, they might be more eager to see you in person when you do come along."

And when Stanley comes along these days, it's in style.

"I bought me a new, 2003 model bus, yep," he says. "It's built to my specifications, the way I've always wanted."

Skaggs remembers the old days.

"It gives me so much hope to see someone 75 who's gone from riding in a car with three or four other guys to limos and station wagons, to maybe a bus," he says. "I was 15, (playing ) with Ralph and Keith Whitley, and Ralph had the oldest bus in the world, a 30-year-old bus. Then he had a motor home, which was almost as bad.

"But now he's got this brand new bus, his own big recliner bed, he can watch TV with his dish goin' down the highway."

And who does Ralph Stanley listen to while goin' down the highway in his new bus?

"I'm gonna tell you the truth," he says. "Most of the people I listen to, if I wanna hear traditional country, I listen to George Jones and Patty Loveless. For the old-time mountain style, I listen to the Stanley Brothers.

"And Ralph Stanley."