Ralph Stanley

Here’s a story that I enjoyed doing about one of the legends of Appalachian mountain music.

So long, hard times

– © copyright
National Post
Saturday, June 22, 2002

By Robert Remington

High in the remote hills of Appalachia, near Coeburn, Virginia, one of the hottest musical acts in America is playing to an adoring crowd at the homestead on which he was raised, not far from the family graveyard where he will one day be buried, in an above-ground crypt with a banjo carved into his headstone.

With a haunting voice, Ralph Stanley steps up to a microphone and sings O Death, the unearthly a capella song on the soundtrack to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? that, earlier this year, won him a Grammy Award at the age of 75.

“Well, what is this that I can’t see / with ice cold hands takin’ hold of me? / Well, I am death, none can excel / I’ll open the door to heaven or hell.”

His chilling rendition of this old-time mountain song, in which a dying man pleads with death to “spare me over to another year,” hushes the crowd, which is mesmerized by Stanley’s voice. It is a voice once described by the bluegrass artist Ricky Skaggs as epitomizing “the lonesomeness, the hardness, the poverty and the faith of Appalachia,” and it has earned Stanley accolades as the personification of a vanishing sound that was the foundation of country music.

Afterward, Stanley walks to a chair in the corner of the stage with a slight limp, the result of a broken leg from falling off the back of truck a decade ago. The crowd cheers, unconcerned that Stanley has read the lyrics from a sheet of paper to assist his ageing memory. To them, the fact that a hobbling, and occasionally forgetful, old man is enjoying this much success late in life is sweet justice.

In the mid ’50s, the careers of traditional artists like Stanley were almost killed by rock ‘n’ roll. Many packed up their banjos and mandolins and sought regular employment. Stanley and other traditionalists such as Bill Monroe stuck it out, always in the shadow of the younger, slicker country artists of the Nashville music establishment.

Stanley became an icon in the niche market of bluegrass and a hero among musicians, one of the last authentic figures of traditional American country music. Bob Dylan professed that performing with Stanley on the 1997 album Clinch Mountain Country, Ralph Stanley & Friends was “the highlight of my life.” The country singer Hal Ketchum, in the liner notes to the same album, says, “Singing with Ralph Stanley is like painting with Picasso.”

But Stanley remained mostly unknown to a broad audience until the release of O Brother, starring George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson as three escapees from a chain gang posing as a group of backwoods musicians called the Soggy Bottom Boys. With little mainstream radio airplay, the O Brother soundtrack has sold almost six million copies and spawned the “Down From the Mountain” tour, which played to sellout crowds earlier this year and hits the road for a second leg of 41 shows beginning June 25 in Louisville, Kentucky.

The concert, which arrives in Toronto on July 3 and in Ottawa on July 5, features performances of songs from, but not limited to, the soundtrack. The lineup includes some of the top names in country and bluegrass, including Skaggs, The Del McCoury Band, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, The Whites and The Nashville Bluegrass Band.

Of course, Stanley’s rendition of “O Death” is the showstopper. A man whose struggles in the largely unlucrative world of bluegrass once inspired him to write a banjo instrumental titled “Hard Times,” Stanley is thrilled that the music he loves is now getting wider exposure.

“The hard times, that was back in the Fifties, about the time Elvis Presley came along. It was hard times for people like me and Carter [his late brother] and all ‘old time’ or country music. It just about put us all out of business,” Stanley says in an interview. And then he cracks a smile.

“It just about took over — just like this old-time music is doing right now. O Brother, Where Art Thou? has done more for this old-time music than anything that could have happened.”

– – –

On this spring evening in Virginia, Stanley, backed by his Clinch Mountain Boys, performs for about an hour before ambling over to a table to sign autographs and meet his fans, who call him “Dr. Ralph.” (An honorary doctorate in music was bestowed on him by a Tennessee college in 1976.) They have trekked 16 kilometres from Coeburn, a small coal-mining centre, up the Dr. Ralph Stanley Highway — a narrow, winding road that passes by his house — for Dr. Ralph Stanley‘s Annual Memorial Bluegrass Festival, launched 32 years ago to honour the memory of his brother and musical partner, Carter Stanley, who drank himself to death in 1966, at the age of 41, after being diagnosed with cancer.

“I guess I’d say we’ve recorded more than any two or three groups,” says Stanley, sitting in the trailer that serves as his dressing room at the Hills of Home Park, the site near the graveyard where the festival is held each year on the U.S. Memorial Day weekend. Famous for songs such as “The Lonesome River,” “Rank Strangers,” “Angel Band,” and “The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn,” Stanley has recorded more than 170 albums in his career, which began in 1946, when he and Carter began singing on a radio station in nearby Bristol, Va. “Carter was the best singer I ever sung with. Him and me together made it just fine. I’ve had a lot of good singers, but he was the head of the stream.”

Although Carter was the main songwriter and lead singer, it’s Ralph’s raw tenor — a voice that sounded like that of an old man, even when he was young — that gave the Stanley Brothers their distinctive sound. But deferring to his deceased brother is typical of Ralph Stanley, a shy man who, over the years, has disappointed dozens of interviewers with less-than loquacious responses to their questions.

He values the respect of his peers, especially the young musicians he’s worked with in recent years, such as Dylan. “I appreciate the words that they said more than you’ll ever know,” says Stanley. “They all done wonderful singing with me and I wouldn’t trade it for nothing.” But he demurs on the subject of his own talent. “It’s a voice that the man up above gave me,” he says. “He gave me my voice. He gave me my everything and without Him I would be nothing.”

There is a distinct lament to Stanley’s voice, as there is in the voices of many singers from the hills of southwestern Virginia. “It’s mountain music at its purest,” says George Shuffler, who helped develop the Stanley Brothers sound by performing with them for years. “They sing their feelings, their hopes, their tragedies, their romances, the whole nine yards.”

Much of the music revolves around the themes of family, Jesus, drinking and murder, subjects Ralph Stanley knows well. He was born in Dickenson County, a few kilometres from where he lives today, in a lumber and coal-mining area where a labyrinth of ridges and valleys and jungle-thick woods once made a perfect hideout for moonshiners.

“Around here, a man works on a farm, or it’s timber and coal mining and that’s about it,” says Jim Brewer, a truck driver and musician from the nearby hills of eastern Kentucky who has been a fan of the Stanley Brothers since he was a teenager. “My own father, talk about an old mountain man. He pulled his own teeth, never took so much as an Aspirin all his life. That’s the way it is with folks around here. They are a tough, proud people.”

In the Depression, poverty and isolation often led to tragedy. “There’s always been a lot of murder and a lot of heartache,” Stanley is quoted as saying in the book In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music by Nicholas Dawidoff.

Stanley has had more than his share of both. In the early ’70s, several years after Carter’s death, Ralph Stanley found Roy Lee Centers, a singer he considered close to being his brother’s equal. One night after a festival near Jackson, Centers went to a party and got a ride home from a drunk he’d been in an argument with. The man reportedly drove Centers up a back road, told him, “I’m going to silence that beautiful voice forever,” and shot him in the mouth, killing the 29-year-old singer in front of Centers’s 10-year-old son.

“That was another shock for me. He was the closet thing to Carter I ever had,” says Stanley, himself never much of a drinker.

But, if liquor and killing abounded in the hills where he grew up, so did religion. More than a half-dozen Baptist churches can be found along the road from Coeburn to Stanley’s house, many of them from stricter sects. Stanley was raised in the Primitive Baptist church, but only baptized two years ago, when a premonition moved him to seek redemption.

“I dreamed one night I was out walking and met a preacher,” he told his fan club’s newsletter editor, Jeffrey Fox. “I didn’t know his name. He reached down and shook hands, gave me a cold handshake. I went on a little further and met another preacher. His name was Landon Colley. He’s the one who preached at my mother’s funeral and at Carter’s funeral. That stayed with me, a vision, you know. I couldn’t sleep, it hit me so hard.”

At 4:30 a.m. he phoned a local minister and was baptized that afternoon in the nearby Clinch River, becoming a member of the Slate Creek Primitive Baptist Church of Buchanan County, Va., which, incidentally, allows no musical instruments inside for accompaniment.

Religion is such a powerful force in the area that festivals typically run Thursday night through Saturday, even when there is a Monday holiday, as with Stanley’s Memorial Day weekend gathering. Sunday performances, even of gospel music, are taboo.

“That would be singing for money,” says Brewer. “It’s just not done.”

Brewer hails from a multi-generation musical family — his father sang with the Carter Family in the 1920s. He occasionally sings with his son Gary, a popular bluegrass performer who’s among a dozen acts hired to play at Stanley’s festival. The weekend bill consists of strict bluegrass traditionalists, including Jimmy Martin, Melvin Goins, Karl Shifflet, Charlie Waller and Larry Sparks. The only relative newcomer invited by Stanley is Gillian Welch, the Los Angeles-raised singer-songwriter whose material sounds straight out of the repertoire of the Carter Family.

“I’m a traditionalist myself,” says Stanley. “They call [my music] bluegrass, but they call a lot of stuff bluegrass and I don’t know what it is. That’s why I quit calling my music bluegrass. I call my music old-time country music.”

Ralph Stanley is the only authentic mountain singer we’ve got left around here,” says Larry Cordle, a Nashville-based singer-songwriter who wrote Murder on Music Row, the 2001 Country Music Association Song of the Year that laments how Nashville record executives killed traditional country music with pop influences. “I’d rather hear him clear his throat than listen to a lot of other people sing.”

– – –

After the show, a large group of fans walk over to the little cemetery where Carter Stanley is buried, passing through a gate over which is written, “Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain.” The Stanley Brothers’ music emanates softly from a speaker at the gravesites.

The graveyard is located on the highest point of Smith Ridge, named for their grandfather. Carter and Ralph Stanley were raised on this land by their banjo-playing mother and a father, also a singer, who scratched out a living by operating a portable sawmill and raising corn and tobacco before leaving the family when Ralph was 13. It was his father who passed on to him traditional Appalachian mountain songs such as “A Man of Constant Sorrow.” “I don’t know who wrote it, but my daddy was the first one I ever heard sing it. I hear there’s a lot of claims on it now,” Stanley said of the song, which recurs throughout the O Brother soundtrack.

Next to Carter’s grave is the plot Ralph has picked out for himself. Also chiselled into the above-ground vaults where the brothers will rest side by side are doves, a reference to “The White Dove.” It is one of a host of Stanley Brothers songs written between 1946 and Carter’s death in 1966 that stand as classics of American traditional music.

Still performing 150 days a year, Stanley says he has no plans for retirement, as long as he gets “spared over to another year.” “I haven’t set a time. It’s just according to my health and so forth. When I get to thinking I can’t do my job well, I’m ready to go home.”


One comment

  1. I have been playing banjo badly for the last 15 years and now upright bass but never fully appreciated the history of bluegrass music and the masters who created this really unique sound! Thank you Bob for the interesting and informative story of Raph Stanley’s quest to keep mountain music alive! The story also reminded me of the labour movement and the power of song to unite the masses against injustice. My father was a labour leader and he believed music and art provided balance in the working family’s life!

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