Corrections or additions?
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
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
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
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
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.
August 31 through September 2.
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.
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
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.
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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