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The 'Mountain' of bluegrass looming large

Down from the Mountain tour rolling this summer

Ralph Stanley
Ralph Stanley on the "O Brother" soundtrack: "It's one of the best things that ever happened to me."  

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- Ralph Stanley can remember when his tour transportation consisted of an old car.

In the 1940s and '50s, he and his bands, the Stanley Brothers or the Clinch Mountain Boys, would pile in, travel the 150 miles or so to a concert or radio show, then head back home about 1 or 2 in the morning.

Invariably, he says, the bass fiddle would be hitting someone in the neck, and with the people and the talk and the lonely blue highways, you could just forget about sleeping.

Now Ralph Stanley has a bus, complete with a Craftmatic adjustable bed and a private room.

He used it to travel to last year's "Down from the Mountain" tour, on which he performed just a handful of songs each night -- not that he wouldn't like to do more, he says -- and, perhaps most important, "Every night I was out I had a full night's sleep."

Down from the Mountain tour dates 
EW.COM: All about 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' 

And all because of a movie soundtrack.

"It sort of changed everything around for me," says Stanley, 75, of the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" record, which won a Grammy for album of the year and sold more than 5 million copies.

"It's one of the best things that ever happened to me, even if it was late."

It's one of the best things that ever happened to traditional country and bluegrass music, for that matter.

Such acts as Stanley and Alison Krauss and Union Station were already dependable sellers with devoted followings, but the success of the soundtrack has put them in a whole new league.

The performers, along with Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, Norman Blake, and Chris Thomas King, are leaving for the second Down from the Mountain tour, which begins June 25 in Louisville, Kentucky, and rolls through the rest of the summer.

The soundtrack's success allowed producer T-Bone Burnett to start up a new label, DMZ. One of the label's first releases -- which was put out in early June -- is by none other than Ralph Stanley.

'Old home week'

Ricky Skaggs, who has played with Stanley and Harris in the past, characterizes the tour as "old home week."

Ricky Skaggs
Ricky Skaggs is participating in Down from the Mountain for the first time.  

"We all have such a history together," he says. "We've all got this great relationship."

Skaggs wasn't involved with "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" but he's very close to one of the performers -- his wife is Sharon White, who is one of the vocal group the Whites.

He was impressed by the show when he saw a concert in Washington last year -- "It was almost like a musical" -- but says he was "a little apprehensive" when he was invited to join.

"I felt a little funny because I wasn't part of the soundtrack or the movie," he says. "And I didn't want anyone to think I was jumping on the bandwagon and promoting myself."

Skaggs didn't need to worry; he's already well respected in bluegrass circles. In 1996, having established himself as a mainstream country star, he made a conscious decision to get back to his roots.

Both his father and one of his mentors, the legendary Bill Monroe, were ill, and acknowledging their influence meant returning to bluegrass, he says.

"I got to the point where the kind of music I play and record wasn't being played on the radio and not Country Music Television-friendly," he says.

"I knew bluegrass, and those two men, who shaped so much of my life, would want me doing bluegrass again."

Alison Krauss
Alison Krauss, along with her group Union Station, has been one of the top bluegrass/roots-country acts of the past decade.  

Skaggs started his own record label, Skaggs Family Records. His first album for Skaggs Family sold 200,000 copies -- "more than my last album for Atlantic [his previous label]."

"I haven't looked back since," he says. "I always felt like Dad and Mr. Monroe were looking down and smiling."

No beating the company

Skaggs echoes Stanley when he talks about the drawback to touring with such a large group. "It'll be really hard for me to do just two songs," he says. "I usually do 75 or 90 minutes."

But there's no beating the company, he adds.

"I'm excited about playing with Ralph Stanley. I'm proud to see that everyone else now knows what I've always known about Ralph Stanley."

Stanley is looking forward to the tour as well.

"[Everyone] seemed to really enjoy singing with me," he says. He closes the show, but the whole group often comes out to sing together.

Down from the Mountain
At the end of the show, the group of performers come out to sing together.  

Stanley has seen bluegrass' popularity ebb and flow. When rock 'n' roll came along in the '50s, he says, "It starved out a lot of entertainers."

His own career, which had waned, was revived by the bluegrass festivals that got under way in the late '60s.

This boomlet has been looked at as a fad, but Ricky Skaggs, for one, believes it will last. The success of "O Brother" and last year's tour -- not to mention interest in this year's -- would seem to bear him out.

"It's a great season for roots and acoustic music," he says. "Country radio is missing out. They think it's going away in six months, but I don't see that."


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