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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the August 29, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

On the Road: `The Man of Constant Sorrow’

Ralph Stanley has got himself a whole passel of new

fans — thanks in part to Joel and Ethan Coen’s recent movie


to American roots music, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" The

Library of Congress honored Stanley with its "Living Legend"

award last year. And now he’s got one of those big profiles

in this month’s double Music Issue of the New Yorker.

But for this veteran entertainer, who formed his first band with his

late brother Carter in 1946, none of this brouhaha makes a whole lot

of difference.

At 74, Stanley is still on the road more than he’s at home. Home is

halfway between Coeburn and McClure in southwestern Virginia, just

a few miles from Smith Ridge where he grew up. The veteran musician

is still traveling the length and breadth of the country in a bus,

raising his raw, lonesome tenor voice in the service of Appalachian

old-time, mountain music as he has for the past 50 years.

For 30 of those 50 years, the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival has

been a sometime project and a frequent destination for Stanley and

the Clinch Mountain Boys. Last year the band put on two big Saturday

shows. And this year they’ll be back again.

Stanley and the late Bill Monroe helped organize the first two


of this Labor Day bluegrass event, known back then as the Delaware

Bluegrass Festival, and Stanley was one of the featured performers

in the inaugural show of 1972. "Ralph has been one of our most

frequent guests, and it would be unthinkable to hold our gala 30th

festival without him," say the Brandywine Friends of Old Time

Music, the festival organizers based in Wilmington, Delaware. Since

1990, the festival has made its home on this side of the river, at

the Salem County Fair Grounds in Woodstown, New Jersey.

Ralph Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys take the stage on Saturday,

September 1, at 8 p.m. The "Boys" are son Ralph Stanley II,

fiddler James Price, bass player Jack Cooke, James Alan Shelton on

lead guitar, Steve Spakman on banjo, and John Rigsby on mandolin.

Over the past 30 years, the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival has

hosted such legends of bluegrass and country music as Lester Flatt,

Don Reno, Jimmy Martin, Merle Travis, Wilma Lee Cooper, the Lewis

Family, Alison Krauss, Wade and Julia Mainer, Ricky Skaggs, and the

Country Gentlemen, as well as those returning to celebrate the



Today the three-day outdoor festival features


on an ample covered stage. It’s also a favored family destination,

with a whole temporary town of music-lovers’ trailers and tents, and

bands of children running free. Performers mingle with their public,

talking shop, hawking their recordings, and sharing glimpses of their

life as traveling musicians. (That tour bus in which Stanley spends

so much time sports the twin logos "Dr. Ralph Stanley and His

Clinch Mountain Boys," a reference to his honorary doctorate from

Lincoln Memorial University and the more down-to-earth instruction:

"Wipe yo feet!") Children’s activities range from songs and

storytelling to harmonica lessons. Add to this impromptu concerts

and jam sessions around the campground and in the parking lots, and

the fairgrounds seem to emit their own musical hum.

There are no permanent seats under the stage canopy, so bring your

own lawn chairs. Space is on a first-come, first-served basis


Friday, and chairs may be left in place for the entire weekend.


policy and tradition deems that empty chairs may be occupied by


so long as the chair is graciously relinquished upon its true owner’s


The 30th anniversary weekend features music luminaries that include

the Osborne Brothers, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, the Seldom Scene,

and Guy Clark, who has spent the last 30 years as Songwriter Laureate

of the Lone Star State. Saturday’s attractions include the veteran

folk musician Doc Watson and the group Front Range. Sunday brings

the Sullivan Family, Larry Sparks, and Blue Highway.

There’s no denying the sea change in popular taste that has taken

place since the advent of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" This

light and dark fable, set in the rural South of the 1930s, is a


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 his a cappella rendition of the folk ballad

"O Death" provides the film’s most serious and searing


It closes on a more gentle note with 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 a platinum seller, perched among the Top 10 albums for

months. A follow-up documentary, "Down from the Mountain,"

featuring Stanley, opens the New Jersey Film Festival in September.

The New Yorker calls Stanley’s newest admirers "The tattooed,

the pierced, the dreadlocked, and the shaven-headed" and, since

the advent of "O Brother," Stanley now sings "O Death"

at every show.

For new and old fans alike, bluegrass music in general and Stanley’s

songs in particular draw on a deep well of human mystery, grief, and

joy. It’s no fluke that Stanley has become identified as a mythic

"Man of Constant Sorrow." To modern ears, the haunting


of his narrative ballads can evoke a sense of loneliness and


comparable to Samuel Beckett’s or Jean-Paul Sartre’s. 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 from."

Born in 1927, Stanley grew up in the Primitive Baptist Church in a

tradition that eschews musical instruments and relies on a cappella

singing for its arts of persuasion. His father operated a sawmill

on weekdays but on Sunday he was a church singer; his musician mother

taught him banjo. Stanley and his only brother, Carter, started


together in their teens, then served in the armed forces during World

War II.

After the war, the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys


20 years together with only a few interruptions. Although audiences

began to dwindle with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, the band toured

relentlessly, heard on radio, vinyl records, and in live shows in

firehouses, fairgrounds, movie theaters, and even bars. Their


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


Some listeners date the tragic timbre in Stanley’s voice to 1966,

the year his brother Carter died at a mere 41 years of age. Stanley

briefly considered giving up the music at the time. But he didn’t.

And in the intervening years his sound has become steadily more


More than half his repertory is in sacred songs, and he prides himself

on recording such beautiful four-part a cappella gospel songs as


Morning Star."

More recently Stanley won the ear of country music fans

with his 1998 release, "Clinch Mountain Country," a double

CD in which he performs with a dizzying number of country music


such as Hal Ketchum, Patty Loveless, Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs,

Dwight Yoakam, and Kathy Mattea. Bob Dylan’s contribution of the


rendition of "The Lonesome River" further extended the album’s

reach. And Krauss, credited with bringing bluegrass to a new


of fans, joins Ralph on the Stanley Brothers’ 1963 number, "Pretty

Little Miss in the Garden." Stanley’s boy-girl numbers proved

so successful that fans are now awaiting the follow up CD, "Clinch

Mountain Sweethearts," due to be released in September.

As neighbor and former band member Ron Thomason has said,"It’s

nice that he’s about the age now where he can actually sound as old

as he’s always wanted to sound. Because when he was 16 or 17 he wanted

to sound like an old man."

— Nicole Plett

Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival , Salem County Fair

Grounds, Route 40, Woodstown, 302-475-3454. Website:

The festival celebrates its 30th anniversary year. Rain or shine.

$25 daily; weekend pass, $65; children free. Friday through Sunday,

August 31 through September 2.

Directions: Take I-295 south toward the Delaware Memorial

Bridge and follow signs for Route 40 to Atlantic City. On Route 40,

watch the mile markers; just past the 7-mile marker you will see a

State Police communications tower ahead on the left. The Fair Grounds

are located on the left, just before that tower. The entrance is


marked and the ticket gate is about 100 yards up from the entrance.

Festival Schedule:

Friday, August 31 : Bob Paisley & The Southern Grass, 1

and 6:30 p.m. Hazel Dickens with Dudley Connell, 1:45 and 7:15 p.m.

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Guy Clark, 3:15 and 8:45

p.m. Seldom Scene, 4 and 10:15 p.m. The Osborne Brothers, 4:45 and

9:30 p.m.

Saturday, September 1: Tuesday Mountain Boys, 1 p.m.


1:45 and 7:15 p.m. Tom, Brad & Alice, 2:30 and 6:30 p.m. Front Range,

3:15 and 9 p.m. Rhonda Vincent & The Rage, 4 and 10:30 p.m. Doc


4:45 and 9:45 p.m. Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys, 8 p.m.

Sunday, September 2 : Bob Paisley & The Southern Grass,

10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Front Range, 10:40 a.m., and 2:40 p.m. Sullivan

Family, 11:20 a.m. and 3:20 p.m. Mountain Heart, noon and 4 p.m. Larry

Sparks & The Lonesome Ramblers, 12:40 and 4:40 p.m. Blue Highway,

1:20 and 5:20 p.m.

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