(Editor’s note: A Distant Land to Roam: Ralph Stanley Sing Songs of the Carter Family was released Tuesday, May 30.)
SMITH RIDGE, Va. — Ralph Stanley wrapped up his 36th annual Memorial Weekend Bluegrass Festival with a Saturday (May 27) show featuring former members of his fabled band, the Clinch Mountain Boys.
Five of the alumni on hand here at the Hills of Home Park first played with Stanley when he and his older brother, Carter, worked together as the Stanley Brothers. They are fiddler Lester Woodie, vocalist and guitarist Melvin Goins, guitarist George Shuffler, bassist John Shuffler and bassist and vocalist Jack Cooke (who has been a Clinch Mountain Boy continuously for the past 37 years).
Also taking part in the celebration were former lead vocalists Larry Sparks, Charlie Sizemore and Sammy Adkins and guitarists Junior Blankenship, Ricky Lee and Kenneth Davis. Not present was Stanley’s most famous alum, Ricky Skaggs, who joined the band with Keith Whitley when they both were teenagers. Absent as well was ex-lead singer Ernie Thacker, who was critically injured in an April 18 traffic accident.
While the reunion had been planned and advertised, the show itself was strictly impromptu and delightfully ragged. Stanley called the musicians to the stage as their names occurred to him, and they each chose and arranged their songs on the spot.
“Lester’s getting old — you’ll have to allow for him,” cracked the 79-year-old Stanley when Woodie didn’t appear on cue. After admonishing Sizemore to “sing an easy one,” Stanley then joined him on “Rank Strangers.”
Goins, who joined the band less than a year before Carter’s death in December 1966, recalled performing atop the concession stand at drive-in theaters “where the bugs would eat you up.” He noted that the band played “three or four” shows on the day he joined it and netted less than $200.
As loose as it was, the show was the hit of the four-day festival. Reliably enthusiastic but usually sedate, the crowd rushed from their seats and surrounded the stage for the duration of the show, many snapping pictures, shouting out requests or just waving convivially at certain band members.
Stanley used the occasion to introduce his newest grandson, Ralph Stanley III, whose father is the Clinch Mountain Boys’ current lead vocalist.
The festival got underway Wednesday (May 24) with a presentation of the Barter Theatre’s musical play about the Stanley Brothers, Man of Constant Sorrow. Among the acts that performed at the festival were Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Larry Sparks, the James King Band, Jim Lauderdale, Dave Evans & River Bend, Cherryholmes, Marty Raybon & Full Circle, the Charlie Sizemore Band and Melvin Goins & Windy Mountain.