Ralph Stanley, the bluegrass legend who died at 89 yesterday, is probably best known now for his rendition of “O Death” in the Coen Brother’s 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou. “Well what is this that I can’t see / With ice cold hands takin’ hold of me,” Stanley sings in his lonesome, affectless, inimitable quaver. He sounds like he’s already dead, a ghost whose bleak solidity lends an almost indecent weight to the Coen’s campy Ku Klux Klan set piece.
Contemporary country music, with its bros and goodtime partying, doesn’t generally explore this kind of frozen gothic terror, and even alt country folks like Jason Isbell tend to look to more mundane settings for their pathos. Today, Stanley’s real heirs aren’t on country radio, but in another genre altogether.
Extreme metal is thought of—and often actually is—explicitly anti-Christian or even Satanist. But an obsession with death and the weight of eternity is an obsession with death and the weight of eternity, whether you give it a Christian gloss or not. “O the young, the rich or poor / All alike may know / No wealth, no land, no silver or gold / Nothing satisfies me but your soul”, Stanley sings. Steven O'Malley, of the New York drone metal group Khanate, responds with the same harsh calculus, delivered in an agonized scream: “Trying. Is. Not. Enough!”
It’s easy to see why country today has moved to other topics; it’s the same reason that Stanley’s passing won’t attract nearly as much attention as Bowie’s or Prince’s. Everybody loves pop music as sexual, joyful celebration, which is why pop music is popular in the first place. But there’s always been a counter-tradition, in which transcendence is as much obliteration as release, and in which the body is less a site of Dionysiac pleasure and more a stinking anchor to which we’re nailed.
“The Savior has paid a great price for me / He gave his life on Cavalry.” In “A Voice from On High” from the 1940s, Stanley’s voice goes up in falsetto above his brother Carter’s, heading for heaven but still grounded in Christ on that hill. Freedom and death, the corpse and the soul—they’re bound together as close as those Stanley Brother harmonies.
It may seem sacrilegious to juxtapose frankly evil death metal blasphemy with Stanley’s hope for salvation. But the truth is, “Impaled crucifixion / Compassion forgot / Eternal damnation / Once upon the cross” could almost as easily come form “O Death” as from Deicide. If he were reborn today, Stanley might end up using that amazing voice to wail over clotted guitars about sin and defilement. But neither metal nor bluegrass put much stock in reincarnation. Death comes once. Ralph Stanley, true to his metal peers, has had his eyes on it for a long time.