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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the January 15, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Clinch Mountain Sounds
The road up from Coeburn, Virginia, in the heart of
the Appalachian mountains, to Ralph Stanley’s home place, is a steep,
winding blacktop that hugs the contours of the wooded hills. The rugged
terrain is dotted with small farms. Occasionally you’ll see the entrance
to one of the area’s many working coal mines. And there can be terrifying
encounters with huge coal-hauling semi trucks.
Near the top, the road takes you past Ralph Stanley’s home, a stone
ranch-style house surrounded by flower beds, lawns, and shade trees,
with a pair of pinto ponies grazing in the adjacent field behind a
gleaming white rail fence. A few miles farther up and the road brings
you to Smith Ridge, the place where the musical Stanley and his late
brother Carter were born and raised.
The house is gone. In its stead stands the Hills of Home Cemetery,
a fenced family burial plot populated by Smith family graves. Beneath
a hand-painted sign with the additional legend, "Let Me Rest On
A Peaceful Mountain," and a huge, spreading shade tree, is the
imposing granite crypt of Carter Stanley and his wife, Mary. A second,
matching crypt holds the remains of mother Lucy Jane Stanley. The
Hills of Home will eventually become the final resting place of Ralph
Stanley and Jimmi, his wife of 34 years.
The Stanley home place is a place of memories. It also the lively
site of annual Ralph Stanley Memorial Bluegrass Festival which has
taken place every Memorial Day weekend for more than 30 years. Over
the course of last year’s festival, where Ralph Stanley and the Clinch
Mountain Boys were featured in two big sets on each of its three days,
all the music luminaries — Charlie Waller and the Country Gentlemen,
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Larry Sparks, Melvin Goins, Jim
Lauderdale, James King, and many others — used at least a few
moments of their stage time to pay tribute to their legendary host.
McCarter Theater hosts the legendary Ralph Stanley and his Clinch
Mountain Boys on January 21, at 8 p.m. With more than 50 years of
music-making under his belt, Stanley’s group today includes both gifted
younger mountain musicians and dazzling veterans. The "Boys"
feature James Alan Shelton on lead guitar, fiddle player James Price,
son Ralph Stanley II on rhythm guitar and lead tenor, Steve Sparkman
on banjo, John Rigsby on mandolin, and veteran Jack Cooke, who has
been with Stanley, on and off, since 1955, on bass and vocal harmony.
"I don’t play the banjo too much anymore, maybe a couple of times
in a show," says Stanley who, as a younger man, was a virtuoso
player and innovator on that instrument. "But Steve learned from
me and he does the same style that I did. I can put so much more in
my singing if I don’t have the banjo to take my attention. And I’m
trying to sing as good and I can."
Neither age nor late-career fame has changed Stanley’s
work habits. At 75, the devoted husband, father of three, and grandfather
of six, is still on the road about 150 nights a year. He still travels
the length and breadth of the country in a bus, raising his high lonesome
tenor voice in the service of Appalachian old-time, mountain music
as he has for more than 50 years. Asked once again about the source
of his unique talent, Stanley is self-effacing. "It just comes
natural to me, you know. That’s all I know, and I’m glad it is. What
I do is natural, it comes from the heart," he says.
While he has long been revered by enthusiasts of folk, bluegrass,
and country music, Stanley has lately been commanding the kind of
honors due a national living treasure. Last week, on the evening of
our phone interview, Stanley’s home had an especially festive atmosphere.
That day, the 2003 Grammy nominations were announced, the Stanley
family and the Clinch Mountain Boys could boast no less than three
nominations between them, all in the Best Bluegrass Album category.
Ralph’s new solo album "Ralph Stanley" and his album with
Jim Lauderdale and the Clinch Mountain Boys, "Lost in the Lonesome
Pines," were both nominated. Also nominated was Ralph Stanley
II’s solo CD, "Stanley Blues."
We ask how much of a hand he has had in the musical education of Ralph
II, who has performed with his father since boyhood, and sung lead
since his early teens. Ralph II sings lead tenor and also writes his
own material. "As far as singing, I’ve taught him a lot,"
says Stanley, "and then he’s pretty much self-contained. He’s
got his own ideas. He likes to sing good traditional country."
In 2002, Stanley was awarded two Grammys — the first of his long
career — both for his "O Death" contribution to the "O
Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack. Last year, he was the subject
of an admiring profile in the New Yorker, written by novelist David
Gates. Stanley is also the central figure in the D.A. Pennebaker and
Chris Hegedus documentary "Down From The Mountain," about
the music of "O Brother."
A man of notoriously few words, Stanley says he is not
averse to all the renewed attention. When asked if he likes it —
"Yes, I like it," is his cheerfully terse reply.
For new and old fans alike, Stanley’s old-time mountain music draws
on a deep well of human hope, grief, adversity, and joy that was transported
into the region by its stalwart immigrants. Ricky Skaggs, who was
a Clinch Mountain boy before he was a star, has said that "Ralph
Stanley brings the lonesomeness, the hardness, the poverty, the faith
of Appalachia to his singing. He sounds exactly like where he comes
Born in 1927, Stanley grew up in the Primitive Baptist Church, a faith
that does not employ musical instruments in worship but relies on
a cappella singing for its musical arts. His father operated a sawmill
on weekdays, but on Sunday he was a church singer; his musical mother
(nee Smith) taught Stanley banjo, which he learned to play clawhammer
style. Stanley and Carter started performing together in their teens,
then served in the armed forces during World War II.
The Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys made their debut
right after the war and enjoyed 20 years together on radio and on
tour. Although audiences began to dwindle with the advent of rock
‘n’ roll, the band toured relentlessly, playing firehouses, fairgrounds,
movie theaters, and even bars. Their recordings from 1949 to 1959,
still considered among their best, include "The White Dove,"
"O Come, Angel Band," "The Fields Have Turned Brown,"
"A Vision of Mother," and "Rank Strangers To Me."
In 1966, Carter Stanley died suddenly at age 41. Stanley briefly considered
giving up the music at the time. But he didn’t. Gradually, however,
he shifted the band’s musical emphasis from bluegrass to an older,
sadder, less adorned mountain style. Although the ’60s folk revival
brought new audiences to roots music, rock, pop, and country pushed
Stanley’s sound to the margins.
Stanley’s fortunes changed with a series of albums in which he shares
duets with country stars, beginning in 1992 with "Saturday Night,
Sunday Morning." Next came the 1998 release, "Clinch Mountain
Country," a double CD in which he performs with such country music
luminaries as Hal Ketchum, Patty Loveless, Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs,
Dwight Yoakam, and Kathy Mattea — 31 in all. Bob Dylan’s rendition
of "The Lonesome River" extended the album’s reach to legions
of Dylan fans. And Krauss, credited with bringing bluegrass to a new
generation of fans, joined Ralph on "Pretty Little Miss in the
Garden." "Clinch Mountain Sweethearts" was the third of
the crossover albums, released shortly after "O Brother, Where
Art Thou?," Joel and Ethan Coen’s movie tribute to American roots
Stanley is the first to acknowledge a sea change in
popular taste brought on by "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" This
light and dark fable, set in the rural South of the 1930s, is a music-driven
wonder — an inspired paean to this melting pot of traditional
song. Not only does Ralph Stanley’s signature Appalachian lament,
"I am a Man of Constant Sorrow," represent the axis of the
Coen Brothers’ tale, but the film’s whimsical and gentle closing moments
take place accompanied by a 1955 recording of the Stanley Brothers
singing "O Come, Angel Band," featuring the lovely tenor voice
of Carter, and Ralph on vocal harmony and banjo. While the movie prospered
moderately at the box office, the soundtrack CD has proved phenomenally
(and unexpectedly) popular, selling 5 million copies worldwide. Since
the advent of "O Brother," Stanley now sings "O Death"
at almost every live show.
Although Stanley has recorded nearly 200 albums — some 30 of them
over 30 years on the Rebel Records label — last year marked his
debut recording for DMZ/Columbia Records and the first album released
solely under his own name — "Ralph Stanley." "Well,
I think it probably should be that," says Stanley, "because
I did most of it." Executive producer for the album is T Bone
Burnett, the musical ear behind the soundtrack to "O Brother,
Where Art Thou?"
For the solo new album, Burnett did not choose the silk-smooth Clinch
Mountain Boys to back Stanley, but instead opted for "O Brother"
musicians Norman Blake, Stuart Duncan, Mike Compton, Dennis Crouch,
with vocal harmonies by Suzanne and Evelyn Cox.
Almost all the songs on "Ralph Stanley" have long and tangled
histories. The oldest is the chilling revenge ballad, "Mathie
Grove," that dates back to Shakespeare’s time. The remaining songs
were firmly embedded in American folklore by the 1920s, the era of
the first generation of recording artists. The earliest, "The
Death Of John Henry," was recorded by Uncle Dave Macon in 1926.
Stanley’s favorite is the Carter Family’s 1941 variation of "Girl
from the Greenbriar Shore."
Stanley is already at work on a second album with Burnett, due to
be released sometime this year. "I’m going to do some Carter family
songs. Some old songs that haven’t been recorded maybe in 100 years.
It’s all going to be old time music. Some will be solo and I’ll have
a couple of women to help me on the Carter Family songs. I think Patty
Loveless and Allison Krauss maybe. It’s possible that they’ll be on
Although Stanley has toured widely in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and
New York, he says this will be his first performance in Princeton.
He’s not sure just how his high lonesome sounds will be received here.
"But maybe," he tells me, "if you brag on us a little
bit, that’ll help!"
— Nicole Plett
Theater , 91 University Place, 609-258-2787. $30 to $40. Tuesday,
January 21, 8 p.m.
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