'O Death' & 'O Brother': How Ralph Stanley's A Cappella Lament Helped Drive the Flukiest Smash Soundtrack Ever

Ralph Stanley at the 44th Annual Grammy Awards
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Ralph Stanley at the 44th Annual Grammy Awards held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Feb. 27, 2002.

Even with a decade and a half of hindsight, it still feels weirder than anything that ever actually happened within a Coen brothers movie. In the flukiest of all fluky music business smashes, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack -- a bluegrassy album whose unit sales most forecasters would have expected to top out in the mid-five-figures -- instead went eight-times platinum… after winning an album of the year Grammy, spending two weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and standing atop the Country Albums chart for 35 weeks and soundtracks chart for 34.

What was the “hit” off the album (granting that none of the string-band jams actually registered on the Hot 100)? You could argue it was “Man of Constant Sorrow,” sung by Dan Tyminski on the soundtrack and lip-synched by George Clooney in the movie and a popular VH1/CMT video. But you could also make a case for “O Death,” performed by Ralph Stanley not just on record, but in one of the most surprising and, yes, flukily sensational Grammy performances of all time.

“Seeing Ralph Stanley stand up in the middle of the room and perform that at the Grammys was the absolute proudest moment of my career,” says Luke Lewis, who fostered the record when he was chairman/CEO of Universal Nashville. “I don’t know if you can pull it up on YouTube” (you can -- watch below at 1:37) “but it was brilliant, and yesterday when I heard about him passing, that’s the first place my mind went. In the middle of the Grammys, where they’re all concerned about TV ratings, they’re going to put on this guy that came down from the mountain -- literally! -- and unless you’re a severe music freak, you probably didn’t know who he was, and he's going to sing an a cappella song about death? Are you kidding me? That’s insane. That runs against the grain of everything. If Ralph Stanley didn’t come out of that room feeling like a million dollars… because I was sitting with a bunch of hip-hop guys, and they went crazy. They had no idea what this sh-- was, but it completely blew them away.”

Every rock act has its signature song that they hope becomes an anthem for a generation. The Stones have “Satisfaction.” Dylan has “Like a Rolling Stone.” The Who had “My Generation.” Ralph Stanley had “O Death” -- a.k.a. “Hope I Don’t Die Before or After I Get Old.” With all due respect to Blue Oyster Cult, it was the reaper’s biggest hit ever, and it was fearsome.

Is it a misnomer to think of Stanley as a rocker? Probably, given that you can probably count the number of times he performed with an electric guitar on zero hands. But when I talked to T Bone Burnett, the producer of the O Brother soundtrack, about Stanley being signed to a Columbia-affiliated label in the wake of the soundtrack success, he said, “You know, we’re gonna have a 75-year-old rock star. … I’ve taken great pleasure in Ralph beginning to see some justice. I know he’s enjoying it like crazy. He’s driving around in his shades and black leather jacket in a new black Jaguar.”

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The unlikely success didn’t change much about Stanley, who began his recording career in 1947 as a member of the Stanley Brothers duo -- other than his choice of ride. But it did set him up for the decade and a half that followed as a resurgent touring act, in the kind of career renaissance few old-timers could ever hope or plan for.

“I think everybody that touched that record made more money than they’d ever dreamed of making, “ Lewis says. “But I never sensed any of 'em getting big-headed, and I never sensed that Ralph Stanley was anything but humble. … They all got to go on tour, by themselves or as part of the Down From the Mountain group tour. I don’t know that a lot of them were selling a lot of tickets for a long time prior to that. The ones who really seemed stunned were some of the songwriters. We had to track a couple of 'em down -- they were up in the mountains somewhere and had no idea what had happened; they had no mailing address. We had to hand-deliver a couple of checks!”

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If anybody thought they saw the soundtrack’s success coming ahead of time, they were smart enough not to talk too loudly about it. I spoke with the Coen brothers when the movie was coming out toward the end of 2000, and expectations were for... a hearty cult success, maybe. But: “Do you want to hear something very strange?" Ethan Coen asked me then. "The movie was released a couple months ago in France, and the soundtrack album is huge there. Go figure." We both laughed.

Lewis didn’t laugh. “When the film came out in France a couple of months before it came out in the U.S., right away we knew. The guy that ran Mercury in France sent me a message that said, ‘Hey, everybody that walks out of this film buys this record.’ It caused us to manufacture and ship a whole lot more records than we ever would have thought to do -- and thankfully, because we quickly had reorders up the butt. It was gratifying. I had been told by some higher-ups at Universal that I was crazy for doing that deal, even though it was not a lot of money. I went into it thinking I just want to break even. I was a Coen brothers fan, so I fell for all that, I guess.”

O Brother was the rare soundtrack that was recorded in its entirety before the movie was filmed. They wanted to get some songs in the can ahead of time, but the more potential tracks Burnett put down with a variety of contemporary roots artists -- in a process aided by Alison Krauss’ then-manager, Denise Stiff -- the direction shifted. ”With this, we recorded, gosh, probably 60 or 70 pieces before we shot anything,” Burnett told me. “It wasn't originally envisioned to be so music-heavy," said Ethan Coen. But, Joel added, "The music was so much a part of that culture" (the comedy was set in the 1920s South) "that it developed as a logical outgrowth of the movie's setting, as opposed to us thinking, 'Oh, let's sit down and do a musical.'"

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The film opened in February 2001 and came and went, grossing $45 million -- a little better than average for a Coen brothers movie at the time, but no blockbuster. Eventually audiences caught up on home video, which may have been driven by the soundtrack. But O Brother stood as one of the few instances in history where most of the people buying a soundtrack had never come within 100 yards of a theater showing the film.

“I’m pretty sure the record did more billing than the film,” Lewis says. “We were selling CDs for 10 bucks a pop, or more -- do that math. And we had maybe a million or $2 million of marketing and advance tied up in it. Unbelievable. It made my year… or two. Got nice bonuses. Everybody thought we were geniuses. All we did was not f--- it up. All we did was put it in a nice package -- I will take a little credit for that. When we were putting it together, a bunch of us said, ‘This is probably going to be a coffee table kind of a CD, where people will leave it around and be proud to have it.’ That turned out to be pretty much true. Just yesterday I was on a ferry in the Bahamas and overheard someone talking about the record, I guess because he’d heard about Ralph. He said, ‘It’s my favorite record of all time!’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It’s very strange, how you still hear that. A lot of people that don’t buy records at all, or buy one a year, bought that record.”

It didn’t make the Backstreet Boys suddenly change their name to the Soggy Bottom Boys. But it did establish bluegrass -- which was simply the term made up in the '60s to put more of a shine on “old-time hillbilly music” -- as a genre not just for octogenarians, hipsters and octogenarian hipsters, but something nearly mainstream.

“I sort of equate it a little bit to my own personal growth,” says Lewis, pointing out that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s all-star 1972 release Will the Circle Be Unbroken “was a comparable record for me when I was young, where I discovered a root. I think they’re akin a little bit. But that one didn’t have a George Clooney video.” He adds that the songs on O Brother “were proven hit songs. So I think that sort of negates any of the ‘This is freaky’ element. Not really: You’ve got a bunch of artists who were at the top of their game, and yes, they were all niche players, but they were all singing songs that had been proven hits -- they were just proven 70 years prior to when they were recorded for that record.”

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Even “O Death” had been a hit, in its own piecemeal, regional, folky fashion. Originally called “A Conversation With Death,” it was semi-popularized in the 1920s by an itinerant evangelist from North Carolina, Lloyd Chandler, who wrote it after having a drunken conversion experience. While it resembles plenty of rural spirituals of the era in some regards, it’s somewhat unique for emphasizing death not as a comforting experience for the faithful, but a terrifying one for those unprepared. The original lyrics contained references to God, Christ and hellfire, though the later revision leaves those out and makes it all about the grimness of the reaper, with the added plea to “spare me over for another year” so the protagonist can man up for the afterlife.

Burnett liked a banjo-fueled version recorded by Dock Boggs in the '20s and wanted Stanley to record it like that -- possibly sounding a bit more like “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which Stanley had recorded himself with his brother in the '50s, than the more somber end result. “So I got my banjo and learned it the way he did it,” Stanley told Virginia Living magazine in 2008. “You see, I had already recorded ‘O Death’ three times [and] done it with [his late brother] Carter. So I went down with my banjo to Nashville [but] I said, ‘T Bone, let me sing it the way I want to sing it,’ and I laid my banjo down and sung it a cappella. After two or three verses, he stopped me and said, ‘That’s it.’… I went to the old Primitive Baptist Church as a boy, and that’s the way they sung -- no music. They still don’t allow instruments in that church. The members will buy every tape or CD I make, but they won’t have it in the church.”

I spoke with Burnett in the mid-2000s about his appreciation for Stanley. His Texas friend Stephen Bruton was “the first guy who played me ‘O Death.’ I learned about the Stanley Brothers from him. The first and, it still strikes me, truest version of that really deep, dark mountain music is the Stanley Brothers,” he said. “And when the idea first came up of getting Ralph Stanley to sing ‘O Death’ in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I didn’t know where he was. To me, Ralph Stanley was like an imaginary being or something from my childhood. The feel and sound of that music -- the whole impression it made on me before I understood anything about it -- was a conjuring trick. ‘Rank Strangers’ was scary, like Howlin’ Wolf is scary. Where is that coming from? Wherever it is, I can’t get there.”

And yet, via the unlikely vehicle of a musical comedy, they took us there. Even non-banjo players were grateful for the anomaly. One executive remembers waiting for a limo to the Grammys. "Bono was standing next to me," he said. "Their record was up for album of the year [for All That You Can't Leave Behind]. He said, 'I don’t really want to lose. I would really like to win this thing. But if I’m going to lose, losing to that one won’t bum me out.'"