Ralph Stanley: Mountain Folk

May is “Bluegrass Music Month” and what better way for country.com to celebrate this truly American art form than to feature one of the music’s most revered performers. For more than 50 years Ralph Stanley has traveled throughout the U.S. and abroad singing and playing his distinctive brand of mountain-style country music. Stanley has always respected the mountain culture from which he came and that love has manifested itself in his music. At age 71, Stanley has just released his most ambitious album to date, Clinch Mountain Country. Musical heavyweights Dwight Yoakam, George Jones, John Anderson, Marty Stuart, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless and Bob Dylan are among the 30 artists who sing with Stanley on the two-CD set.

These artists were influenced by Stanley’s music and jumped at the opportunity to record with this country music legend. Dylan, who recorded “The Lonesome River” with Stanley, summed up his experience by saying, “This is the highlight of my career.”

Stanley’s insistence on performing his music “the old time way”, without bending to the tenets of the day has resulted in a large and loyal following. On stage Stanley delivers heartfelt love songs, mournful ballads, old-time fiddle music and soul-stirring gospel. Bluegrass fans have noted that Stanley’s live shows today vary little from a Stanley Brothers’ performance of the 1940s. In this fast-paced, sometimes crazy world it’s nice to know that some things don’t change.

While most men his age are retired, Stanley is making no plans to retreat to his rural Virginia farm. “I’d like to go as long as I can. I don’t really want to retire. I like to work,” says Stanley. Along with his rock-solid band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, the bluegrass statesman plays roughly 200 shows a year. With the 1996 death of bluegrass music’s chief architect, Bill Monroe, Stanley inherited the mantle of bluegrass patriarch. Of the seminal bands that laid the foundation for bluegrass in the late 1940s and early 1950s (Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and Reno & Smiley), Ralph Stanley is the last of the group who still maintains a full time band and touring schedule. All the rest have passed on to that big jam session in the sky, save for banjo innovator Earl Scruggs, who is semi-retired from the music business.

Ralph and his older brother, Carter, were heavily influenced by the music they heard as children growing up in the hills of southwestern Virginia. At home, they heard their father, Lee, sing traditional ballads including “Little Bessie,” “Pretty Polly” and “A Man of Constant Sorrow.” Years later, many of those old songs found their way into the Stanley Brothers’ lexicon. Mother, Lucy, played banjo in the old drop-thumb or “claw-hammer” style that was popular among mountain musicians. One of her favorite songs to play when she took a break from her chores was “Shout Lula.” As a boy, it was the first song Ralph learned to play on the banjo and today he nearly always closes his shows with it. His 1997 performance of the number appeared on his Grammy-nominated album, Short Life of Trouble.

The music the Stanleys heard at their Primitive Baptist Church in the tiny hamlet of Nora inspired their close harmony singing style. When they combined all of these ingredients together and spiced it up with Carter’s incredible talent as a songwriter, the results were nothing less than stunning: achingly beautiful melodies with simple, honest lyrics that touched people’s hearts.

When the Stanleys began performing professionally in the 1940s, they fell into the nomadic lifestyle of other country musicians trying to establish careers. They played the “kerosene circuit” of schoolhouses, fairs and theatres and worked at a succession of radio stations throughout the south. Their longest tenure was at WCYB radio doing the “Farm & Fun Time” program that was beamed daily from Bristol on the Virginia-Tennessee border. The brothers’ blood harmonies and songs of lost love, family and home won favor with radio listeners and they soon caught the attention of area businessman, Jim Stanton, who signed the group to his recently formed Rich-R-Tone label. Those recordings sold well and in 1949, the Stanleys signed with Columbia Records. From there they moved on to Mercury before settling in at the Starday/ King label. Thankfully, nearly all of these recordings have been reissued on compact discs.

Carter died in December 1966 but the body of work created by the Stanleys — which numbers in the hundreds — remains a touchstone for today’s generation of bluegrass-based musicians. After Carter’s death, Ralph pressed on with the Clinch Mountain Boys and like his mentor and friend Bill Monroe, his band became a farm team for up and coming bluegrass musicians. Larry Sparks, Charlie Sizemore, Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley all tenured with Stanley before moving up to the major leagues. Ralph recently reflected on that first encounter with Whitley and Skaggs, “I was about an hour late for a show down in Ft. Gay, West Virginia. When I got to the show, these two young boys were playing on stage holding the crowd. It was Keith and Ricky and they sounded like the Stanley Brothers.” Ralph took the teenagers under his wing and produced some wonderful records with their help including some fine a cappella tracks.

In the early 1970s, when other bluegrass acts on the festival circuit were becoming increasingly more progressive, sometimes drawing from the Rock ’n’ Roll repertoire for inspiration, Stanley chose to revisit the wellspring of musical traditions of his mountain heritage. He incorporated the a cappella singing tradition popular in many backwoods churches into his own music. “I used to hear ’Village Church Yard,’ ’Tarry With Me, Oh My Savior’ and songs like that sung in my church. I wanted to sing those songs with my band.”

Two-time CMA Vocalist of the Year Kathy Mattea brings that a cappella style to Clinch Mountain Country with her performance of “Bright Morning Star.” Says Mattea of her recent studio experience with Stanley, “I was amazed at Ralph’s singing chops, in his 70’s. Standing beside him at the mic, I could hear how effortless this is for him, and what a deep place inside of him it comes from.”

Stanley is proud of his new Rebel CD, which was recorded in Nashville over the course of seven months. The performers range from stone country singers Vern Gosdin and Joe Diffie to cutting-edge artists Jim Lauderdale, Gillian Welch and Junior Brown. “I feel honored that they wanted to sing with me. I appreciate it,” says Stanley, “I think this record will bring some young people into bluegrass. I hope it does. I think this is going to do a lot for bluegrass.”

When asked about the current state of bluegrass Stanley is very optimistic. “The crowds have really picked up at festivals. I see a lot of young people coming out to our shows and that’s good. Everywhere we go, we have packed houses.” No doubt there will be a packed house at Nashville’s Station Inn Wednesday, May 27, when Ralph and his band perform at the club’s monthly No Depression night.