CLINTWOOD, Va. — Fifty-eight years to the day after he played his first show as a professional musician, Ralph Stanley stood on the windswept porch of a restored Victorian mansion and cut the ribbon to open the museum named in his honor.
The ceremony took place Saturday (Oct. 16) in Clintwood, Va., near the site of Stanley’s birth. Oddly enough, the mansion once housed the funeral home at which Stanley’s older brother and duet partner, Carter, lay in state following his death in 1966.
Officially called the Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center, the facility is part of the Crooked Road project that links such southwestern Virginia tourist attractions as Bristol’s “birthplace of country music” site (where the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers made their first recordings in 1927), Galax (home of the annual Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention) and the Carter Family Fold complex in Hiltons. Paid for by grants from national and local organizations, including the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Fund, the museum cost approximately $2 million. It recently hired a director and curator, Ginger Morelock, who holds a graduate degree in folk studies from Western Kentucky University.
The interactive exhibits, display cases and gift shop are arranged on the first two floors of the building, while the third floor houses a large and elegantly furnished suite for use by museum guests. In addition to its primary focus on Stanley’s life and works, the museum outlines the contributions made by other bluegrass-oriented artists, including Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Jim & Jesse and early influential local musicians.
Within the display cases are stage costumes, historically important musical instruments, album covers, contracts and royalty statements from record sales. In one video exhibit, Ricky Skaggs, Roy Clark, Gillian Welch, Patty Loveless, Alison Krauss, Bela Fleck, Jim Lauderdale and others offer their opinions on Stanley’s appeal and importance. In another audio display dedicated to life on the road, present and former members of Stanley’s band explain what it was like to tour with him. An entire wall is given over to Stanley’s many awards, among them Grammy trophies, his honorary doctoral certificate from Lincoln Memorial University and a plaque proclaiming him to be the 2004 Virginian of the year.
Stanley was discharged from the Army in 1946 and was on his way home on Oct. 16 of that year when his brother Carter persuaded him to go with him to a radio station in Norton, Va., and sing. Music was Stanley’s profession from that day on.
Virginia Gov. Mark Warner told a group of dignitaries and reporters who met at the community center beside the museum the day before the ribbon-cutting that he expects the new attraction to have an “$11 million impact” on the region during its first year in operation.
Phillip Mullins, who heads the museum’s board of directors, spoke of another goal.
“What we’re aiming to do,” he told the sold-out crowd Friday night (Oct. 15) at a benefit concert for the museum, “is make Clintwood the front porch of traditional mountain music.”
Stanley and his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, headlined the concert. The Abrams Brothers, a Canadian bluegrass group, opened the show. During the intermission between the two performances, three musicians who have worked closely with Stanley came to the stage to comment on his influence and career. They were guitarist George Shuffler, who joined the Stanley Brothers’ band in 1950 and continued to play in it after Carter’s death; Jack Cooke, who has played bass and acted as a comic foil for Stanley for the past 35 years; and Jim Lauderdale, whose 2002 album with Stanley, Lost in the Lonesome Pines earned them each a Grammy.
“I’ve got five brothers,” said Shuffler, “and, counting Ralph, I’ve got six.” He spoke of Stanley’s honesty and determination to treat his musicians well. “One winter,” Shuffler continued, “he sold a herd of cattle –13 head — to keep the band together.”
Cooke, who worked with Monroe and the Stonemans early in his career, noted that he had played on and off for Stanley before returning to the band for good in 1969. “I told Ralph, ’This time, I’m gonna stay with you,'” he recalled.
“When I first heard Ralph sing ’Rank Strangers,'” Lauderdale reminisced, “it just changed my life. … I’ve never met anybody [in country music] who didn’t love Ralph Stanley.”
Stanley’s part of the show was more like a living-room jam than a formal concert. He didn’t even sing or play with the band for the first five songs, electing instead to allow each band member to demonstrate his flashiest chops. Prominent among the bandsmen were Stanley’s son, Ralph II, on lead vocals and grandson Nathan on mandolin. After the youngster set the crowd cheering with a particularly blistering break on “Bile That Cabbage Down,” Stanley proudly proclaimed, “I wouldn’t care bit if he shot me out of the saddle. Go get it, Nathan!”
Dealing themselves in on the performing fun were Shuffler, Lauderdale, former lead singer Kenneth Davis and actor Ben Jones, best known for his role as Cooter in The Dukes of Hazzard TV series. Jones, who fronts his own band, teamed up with Ralph II to sing the Dukes theme song.
Just minutes before Stanley mounted the steps of the museum to cut the ribbon, Mullins explained to the crowd the 77-year-old singer’s emotional importance to the natives of this remote corner of Appalachia.
“It is as if the souls of old mountain folks speak through him,” Mullins said. “Our ancestors live in him.”