At Carter Stanley’s Grave

With fiddle and banjo sounds swirling from the valley below, they trudge up the dusty path in twos and threes to stand at Carter Stanley’s grave. The tiny cemetery rests on the very pencil point of a high Virginia hill, making every approach to it a steep climb. It is almost sundown, and the old cypress trees rising among the graves loom black and flat against the sky, like a Boot Hill scene in a western movie.

The people have come here primarily for the music and camaraderie of the bluegrass festival going on down the hill. But visiting this grave is a part of the festival, too. For no other music dwells so unflinchingly on death as bluegrass. And no one has sung of this grim finality more hauntingly than Carter Stanley and his younger brother, Ralph. Their repertoire abounds with songs of children dying (“Little Bessie,” “No School Bus in Heaven”), parents dying (“White Dove,” “The Fields Have Turned Brown”) and maidens being murdered (“Pretty Polly,” “Poor Ellen Smith.”) On the soundtrack of the forthcoming Coen Brothers movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou, the song that has attracted the most attention is Ralph Stanley’s impassioned dialogue between a victim and the Reaper, “Oh, Death.”

By the time of Carter Stanley’s own passing in 1966 — when he was just 41 — his singing and songwriting had already earned him a place beside bluegrass deities Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

His first show of the day over with, Ralph Stanley drives up to the cemetery with a two-man camera crew that is helping shoot a documentary about the O Brother soundtrack. They walk through the opened gate in the high chain link fence. Over the gate arches a sign that says “Hills of Home Cemetery” and underneath it the line, “Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain.” Stanley often closes his annual bluegrass festival (this year was his 30th one) by singing “Hills of Home,” which concludes with a recitation to his brother.

If you stand at the grave long enough, you can hear Stanley’s recording of the song piped through a small speaker mounted behind the row of waist-high granite crypts in which Carter Stanley lies. Beside him are the tombs of his wife and his mother, as well as ones reserved for Ralph and his wife, Jimmi. Engraved into the front of Carter’s tomb is the tiny outline of a guitar. Ralph’s bears one of a five-string banjo.

While Stanley speaks quietly to the camera, out of the speakers stream such familiar tunes as “Paul and Silas,” “Who Will Sing for Me,” “Drinking From the Fountain” and, once again, “Hills of Home.” Sitting nearby in the dusk are Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, who will close tonight’s show. A few festival-goers walk around the graveyard, squinting at inscriptions on the smaller, older and more weathered tombstones. Most of the people buried here are Smiths, Stanleys’ family on their mother’s side. One tilted headstone says “Baby Girl Smith 1924.”

As the light fades, the sightseers move back down the hill and amble toward the festival stage where the Larkin Family is performing its high-energy, Dollywood brand of bluegrass.

Always a musical monument to home and family, this year’s Memorial Bluegrass Festival (held May 25-27 on Smith Ridge near Coeburn) sets a new standard for togetherness. On his show earlier in the afternoon, Stanley introduced Carter’s daughter Jeannie, who was only 4 years old when her father died. Backed by the Clinch Mountain Boys band, she sang “Mother Left Me Her Bible,” a song her father and uncle had recorded in 1959. With obvious affection and good humor, the usually impassive Stanley also brought all five of his grandchildren onstage (including 5-month-old twin granddaughters) and presented them proudly one by one to the crowd. “I just wanted to show you all who was first responsible,” he said with a twinkle.