Columns » Livelong Days

Two Legit to Quit

Ralph Stanley or Blackalicious? you make the call



Every few weeks or so, just when I'm about to give up (again) on the state of cultural affairs in Colorado Springs, some blazing arrow of hope shoots across the sky, and this man of constant sorrow finds himself among the faithful again.

Whether your tastes ride the range of bluegrass, seek the strange urban soundscapes of hip-hop, or you just like any music that's good, Colorado Springs has the cream of the dream for you this week.

On Saturday night, Ralph Stanley -- the man who put bluegrass back on the popular music map with his song "O Death" from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack -- will grace the stage at the Pikes Peak Center with his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys.

Along with the likes of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Stanley carries the torch of a legacy of American folk music that bypassed the saccharine commercial impulses of Nashville and country-conglomerate radio. Hearkening back to musicians like The Carter Family, Doc Boggs, Leadbelly, Clarence Ashley and many of the great folk artists forever immortalized by Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), Stanley's appeal comes from the well that makes all music great: a willingness to look directly into the heart of darkness and retrieve its most essential mysteries in the language of the muses. As O Brother producer T Bone Burnett put it: "One of Ralph Stanley's gifts is to be able to contain and express grief. There's just such deep grief in his tone."

Along with Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs, Ralph and his brother Carter were best known as pioneers of the energetic, fingerpicking bluegrass style of mountain music. In 1946, the brothers formed their first band and began recording in 1949 for Columbia Records. Though the duo are often cited as the authors of "Man of Constant Sorrow," their version of the song was deeply indebted to earlier versions passed along and mutated in the folk tradition. There's no doubt, however, that the Stanley brothers popularized the song. And in 1962, Bob Dylan recorded a further mutated version of the song on his 1962 debut album.

After his brother's death in 1966, Ralph Stanley went on to record hundreds of records, but it wasn't until the O Brother soundtrack and his plaintively mournful track "O Death" that Stanley began to be recognized as a cultural icon. His most recent recording is the self-titled Ralph Stanley (also with T Bone Burnett producing).

Following Stanley's Saturday night appearance in the Springs, on Monday night you'll have a chance to see Blackalicious -- the already legendary members of the underground hip-hop intelligentsia.

Hailing from Sacramento, Calif., lyricist Gift of Gab and DJ Chief Xcel took the do-it-yourself philosophy of the punk generation before them and applied it to their own creative efforts by producing and releasing their own music with the help of the SoleSides Mission -- a collective of artists, including the world-famous DJ Shadow, that shared their mission.

In 1995, Blackalicious' first album Melodica was getting a lot of airplay on college radio and was quickly picked up by British label MoWax. Europe caught on to Blackalicious' sound far before they gained popularity in the United States, which spread even more widely with their 2000 release Nia.

In 2002, Blackalicious released their second full-length album Blazing Arrow -- an album full of intelligence and wit that ingeniously samples Harry Nillson's "Me and My Arrow," a song from the '70s animated film The Point.

While the cultural gulf that would seem to separate Ralph Stanley and Blackalicious may seem formidable, go see them both and you'll get a nice sampling of the bridge that can connect all cultures regardless of age or geography: great music!

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