LOS ANGELES — As Ralph Stanley sat in a folding chair on the floor of the Staples Center here Monday evening (Feb. 24), his colleagues from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and the Down From the Mountain Tour gathered around the great singer of mountain songs.
Emmylou Harris broke into song first, “Happy birthday to you,” and immediately the others –- Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss , Pat Enright, Mike Compton, Dan Tyminski, Jerry Douglas — joined in, serenading Stanley on the occasion of his 75th birthday.
Stanley smiled and thanked them for remembering.
The troupe had just finished rehearsing a three-part performance segment paying tribute to their massively successful roots music soundtrack.
In the second hour of Wednesday night’s (Feb. 27) 44th Grammy Awards (8-11:30 p.m. ET/PT on CBS), Harris, Welch and Krauss will sing an abridged version of their a cappella siren song, “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby.” (Remarkably, this will be Harris’ first-ever performance on the Grammy telecast, though she has won Grammys in the past.)
Immediately following their performance, Stanley, standing on a platform in the audience, will sing a verse of the haunting ballad “O Death.”
When he finishes, the focus shifts back to the stage, where Tyminski, Enright and Compton will sing “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” the song that has become the focal point for the popularity of the O Brother soundtrack.
In all, O Brother is nominated for six awards including album of the year. Two of the six -– album of the year and best country vocal collaboration –- will be presented during the Grammy telecast. Sheryl Crow and the Dixie Chicks will present the country vocal collaboration honor. A third, producer of the year, will be announced during the show. If O Brother producer T Bone Burnett wins, he’ll stand and wave from his seat. The other awards will be handed out during a pre-telecast ceremony.
Stanley marked three-quarters of a century with characteristic restraint Monday. “I don’t know of a better way to celebrate than to do exactly what I’ve done today,” he told CMT.com.
With wife Jimmie, he visited family in Ontario, Calif., before moving operations to Hollywood, so that he could be on time for his rehearsal. His performance of “O Death” prompted applause in the Staples Center.
“I’ve learned to sing it better,” Stanley said later. “I hadn’t ever sung it like that before and hadn’t rehearsed it much [until I recorded it]. … I just went into the studio and did it in an hour or so. I’ve studied it and learned and I can feel more. I know it better and I can put more punch into it.”
Stanley has just finished recording a new album with Burnett. To be titled Ralph Stanley, the set will feature versions of old-time ballads and early country music.
“I didn’t use my band on this,” Stanley said. Instead, he and Burnett enlisted some of the O Brother players including guitarist Norman Blake and fiddler Stuart Duncan.
“I went back and really got a lot of old songs like ‘Staggerlee’ and ‘Barbara Allen,’ real old-timers. I went further back than I ever have,” Stanley explained.
The album is tentatively set for release May 4 on Burnett’s DMZ label. An announcement is expected within days regarding a distribution arrangement with Sony Music.
Stanley has been nominated for Grammys before, but has yet to win one of the coveted awards. “It’s hard to predict,” he said of his chances. “I think we’ll just have to wait and see. I’m hoping.”