If Ralph Stanley has done as much as any man alive to shape the course of American music, it's not because he has experimented, taken risks or set trends. Innovation is the language of rock & roll, not bluegrass, and Dr. Ralph is no musical polyglot. In his worldview, he doesn't even play bluegrass; instead, he calls it "old-time mountain music," preferring to adhere to the ancient folk songs and gospel music, knowing that there's no point in getting above a raising in the hills that time all but forgot. O Brother, Where Art Thou? may have made him a star of Bonolike dimensions, but his style and voice -- to be sure, haggard and at times wan with the years -- have been as indispensable and singular as the sun for five decades. His a cappella reading of "Oh Death" -- his own arrangement and concept, we should remember -- isn't just old-time authentic; it sounds as if Stanley is on intimate terms with forces from which most of us spend our lives in flight. Fate, time and the end of this coil -- Stanley has somehow overcome them all by telling their stories in songs such as "Rank Strangers," "Angel Band" and "Hard Times" by claw-hammering his banjo just as his mother taught him, by touring and making album after album as if there's a hellhound on his trail and a final reward just around the bend. Who can say whether Death will spare him for another year?
No matter: The good doctor has already beaten Death at his own game. He's done much more than keep bluegrass music alive; when he sings, it seems our own souls wouldn't endure without him.