Dr. Ralph Stanley’s Memorial Bluegrass Festival – Hills of Home Park (Coeburn, VA)
The past year has been good to Ralph Stanley. Winner of a Grammy award for his a cappella rendition of “O Death” from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, Stanley has suddenly found himself the toast of the town from Hollywood to New York to Nashville. Stanley’s turn in the national spotlight is a much-deserved career capstone, but his newfound fame is old hat in bluegrass circles. And for the last 32 years, the Memorial Day weekend of music that bears his name has been an early-season staple for bluegrass fans heading out on the summer festival circuit.
To get there, you must wind past the southwest Virginia coal town of Coeburn on the Dr. Ralph Stanley Highway, following ten miles of snaky ribbon along knife-edge ridges overlooking impossibly steep coves. Located in Dickenson County, the Hills of Home Park is situated on two fingers of steep Allegheny scarp owned by Stanley, populated by a few head of his cattle, and within spitting distance of his old homestead. At the park’s highest point is the family cemetery where Stanley’s mother, older brother Carter, and various kinfolk are laid to rest. Piped-in Stanley Brothers gospel tunes, combined with views west to Kentucky, lend the site an otherworldly feel that, in part, grounds a visitor by revealing the ancient mountain soul at the heart of the Stanley sound.
The festival’s hard-core bluegrass crowd — sporting overalls, UMWA ball caps and camouflage gear — outnumber NPR tote bags and tie-dyes: This grass is a deeper shade of blue, and those tastes are reflected in the lineup.
Thursday evening, Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show gathered around a single mike for a set of tonk-and-grass nicely suited to Shiflett’s twangy voice. Next, the Lewis Family charged ahead with their hard-driving brand of gospel. Soon to celebrate their 50-year anniversary, the Lewises played a mix of sacred and slapstick that was a natural hit with the crowd, despite a set plagued by sound problems.
Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys played a couple sets, opening the second with “Little Maggie”. Their fine rendition of “Angel Band” received a far bigger hand than the smattering of applause following Stanley’s mention of the Coen brothers’ movie. Neither “Rank Stranger” nor “Pretty Polly” needed any introduction to this crowd, nor did “Will You Ever Miss Me At All”.
As the evening wore on, backstage glimpses of a certain Tennessee picker in a red cowboy hat and rhinestone jacket provided sharp contrast with the good doctor’s dignified demeanor. When Jimmy Martin & the Sunny Mountain Boys hit the stage at 10 p.m., it was as if the preachin’ was over and the hoochie-coochie show had begun.
A bantam rooster of a man, Martin is a rapscallion with a devil’s grin, a trash-talker to every female in sight, a raunchy joke-teller, and an unapologetic self-promoter. He provokes a love-him-or-hate-him response like no other figure in bluegrass.
On this night, Martin turned in a jovial, energetic set that had the remaining crowd firmly in the thrall of the moment. “You Don’t Know My Mind”, “Run Pete Run” and “Tennessee” were all included, along with a well-received vocal turn on “Sunny Side Of The Mountain” by a cute-as-a-bug 8-year-old girl he introduced as Little Frankie. Martin is performing only about 20 dates a year now, and as he closed with a sing-along version of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, it was clear he remains among the bluegrass greats.
The James King Band provided second-day highlights with a set drawing partly from King’s new Rounder album, Thirty Years Of Farming. Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, now in their fourth year here, proved very popular with the crowd, from their opener “Tear My Stillhouse Down” to their closer, the Jimmy Martin-penned “This World Is Not My Home”. Charlie Waller & the Country Gentlemen reproduced that polished D.C.-area sound, Waller in fine voice on “The Legend Of The Rebel Soldier”, “Bringing Mary Home”, and a Hank Snow medley.
As the Clinch Mountain Boys took the stage for their first set Friday (with three more to go for the weekend), Stanley featured banjo player Steve Sparkman on “Hard Times”. At 75, Stanley has essentially ceded banjo duty to the younger generation, focusing his still resonant voice on a cappella songs such as “O Death” (which he performed here using a cheat sheet). An unannounced late-set appearance by Jim Lauderdale, who showcased “Lost In The Lonesome Pines”, the title track from his new collaboration with the Clinch Mountain Boys, allowed Stanley to soar on the high harmony.
As he enters a new phase of a career approaching its sixth decade, Stanley has little left to prove. Yet as if to show that age is but a number and that a man of faith can always cheat death, he broke out the banjo for two closing clawhammer tunes, bringing the crowd to a roaring ovation.