Ralph Stanley – The blue, blue grass of home
*Editor’s Note: Ralph Stanley passed away at his home, “in the same mountains of southwestern Virginia where he was born in February 1927,” according to a press release from the IBMA. To honor his memory, we’re re-running this cover story from Issue #15 in 1998.
Doctor Ralph Stanley has a new album coming out. That’s hardly news in itself — he’s been putting them out biannually for the last 30 years or so — but this one is different: Clinch Mountain Country, a two-disc set, pairs the 71-year old veteran banjo man with more than 30 guests in a project meant as much to provide a hot item for sale at personal appearances as it is to honor one of the most distinctive voices in the history of country music. He may be a legend and a national treasure, but Ralph Stanley is still a musician whose first concern is to work enough dates and sell enough albums to keep a good band together, a man for whom the “stock” in “stock market” still means cattle.
An interview with Stanley is, it turns out, somewhat easier to arrange than to pull off. After scheduling a meeting in Bristol, the Tennessee/Virginia border town that was pretty much the birthplace of Ralph’s early career with his brother Carter, I asked for some tips from John Wright, author of a sort of oral history biography of Stanley (Traveling The High Way Home, University of Illinois Press, 1993). His response was more warning than advice: “It’s hard to imagine that anyone can come up with a question he hasn’t heard many times before.”
That was certainly true as far as I was concerned, and added to that problem was this one: There is simply no way to tell the story of the Stanley Brothers’ 19-year career, Ralph’s 32-year history as a solo act after Carter’s death, and something about the new album in the space of a single article. Something has to give, and this time, it’s going to be history; a bare outline will have to do, so…
Ralph Stanley was born in Dickenson County, Virginia, on February 25, 1927. He graduated from high school in May 1946 and went straight into the Army. “I had never stayed away from home but maybe two nights until that happened,” he says, “and I’ll tell you, that was some lonesome days for me.” Shipped off to pull guard duty in occupied Germany, Stanley found favor with his superiors through the banjo playing he had learned from his mother. They gave him an office job and tried to persuade him to stick around with offers of an open-ended string of promotions. He answered, “No thanks, I believe I’ll go home,” and returned to Virginia, where he was promptly pressed into service by older brother Carter, already in a band based in the little town of Norton.
Though he was clearly the less forward of the two, Ralph instigated the decision by the two to start their own band. As he tells it, “I joined this group and things didn’t go just exactly the way I liked them, and so I talked to Carter, and I told him I didn’t like the way everything was going. In other words, the leader played the fiddle — well, he played a banjo too — and during a show he’d come and take the banjo from around my neck and do a banjo tune. So I told Carter, ‘If you want us to start a band of our own, I will, and if not, why, I’m gone.’ So he agreed to do that and we started from there.”
Establishing their new act on Bristol’s WCYB radio station, the Stanley Brothers quickly became, in Ralph’s phrase, a red hot band, working up to six nights a week at “high schools, grade schools and indoor theaters” in the portions of Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and West Virginia that surrounded Bristol. They recorded for the Rich-R-Tone label in Johnson City, Tennessee, then for Columbia and finally Mercury. They occasionally played in other areas (Raleigh, North Carolina; Huntington, West Virginia; Detroit, Michigan; even Shreveport, Louisiana, where they played the Hayride) and even worked for other acts (Carter spent a brief period as one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys). But “we’d just be gone maybe a month or two at a time and then we’d get homesick and come back to Bristol,” Stanley recalls.
The hills of home held a powerful attraction for them, and not just emotionally. Ralph recalls “a time, during the early ’50s, through this area, these three or four states here, Jimmie Skinner and the Stanley Brothers was all you could hear on the jukebox. Anywhere you’d go, you could hear Jimmie Skinner and the Stanley Brothers, that was it — and I mean, it played and played.” The Brothers did well enough that, in Ralph’s account, they were able to sort through requests for engagements and “throw the sorry ones in the waste basket.”
By the late ’50s, however, it was another story. Rock ‘n’ roll had “starved about everybody out”; the Stanleys left Virginia for Florida, and switched from Mercury to the Starday and King labels, between which they shuttled back and forth for the next few years while carrying a minimal band and playing a lot of clubs (“I wouldn’t want to do it now, [but we] just about had to then”). Though some fans disdain their work for King as compromised by commercial considerations — “[owner] Syd Nathan didn’t like a fiddle or he didn’t like a banjo, all he wanted was two guitars and a bass….The Delmore Brothers had recorded with him and done well, and that’s what they had, was guitars” — the Stanleys felt generally well-treated by the label, and were still recording for King when Carter passed away in December 1966, most likely the result of excessive drinking.
The Stanley Brothers’ legacy amounts to around 300 recordings, ranging from the pre-bluegrass sound of their first efforts for Rich-R-Tone to the full-bore sound of classics such as “Our Last Goodbye”, “Nobody’s Love Is Like Mine”, “I’ll Never Grow Tired Of You”, “Think Of What You’ve Done” and “Ridin’ That Midnight Train”; from sublime gospel classics such as “White Dove”, “The Cry From The Cross” and “Rank Stranger” to the Syd Nathan-prescribed silliness of their version of “Finger Poppin’ Time” and their post-Elvis reworking of “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”, made at the behest of Bill Monroe himself (“You’d better do that if you want to sell some records,” he advised the Stanleys).
For Ralph, left to carry on as a solo artist, this body of work amounted to a double-edged sword: He embraced it as profoundly his, yet wanted to distance himself from it. He went back to work within a week of Carter’s death, and almost as quickly began to take his own music in a different direction — back to the future, as it were.
Never a prolific writer — “I’ve seen professional writers and they sit down and just write a song, but it’s got to come to me, you know, I’ve got to…something tells me before I can write” — he mostly relied on others to supply him with material. Curious about how he selects songs, I asked him what he looked for. “Well, I just listen…I listen mostly to the harmony, to the melody of it, actually more than I do the words,” he replied. “Sometimes I can change some of the words….I just listen for something that I can put the old-time touch to….A lot of people, you know, they listen to the words that tells a story that they enjoy. Well now, I listen more to the melody than I do words; that gets me more than the words does.”
While his banjo playing became more and more stripped down and reminiscent of his original, pre-bluegrass two-finger style, the size of his band grew. Perhaps believing that no single man could fill Carter’s shoes, Ralph has usually carried five to seven band members over the years, occasionally even more. They’ve developed a sound no less identifiable by the way its guitar-heavy rhythm lurches forward at the start of a song than by his banjo style; meanwhile, his singing, always filled with a mournful tone even when applied to novelty songs such as “The Kitten And The Cat”, became even more melismatic and haunting.
As these characteristics emerged Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys became an act that was no less a part of the contemporary scene for having a direct connection to the earliest days of bluegrass. With steady support from an irrepressible fiddler, the late Curly Ray Cline, and a stolid bass player and harmony singer, Jack Cooke, Ralph brought in a steady succession of lead singers and lead guitarists, as well as the occasional mandolin player. Among them were Roy Lee Centers, Keith Whitley, Charlie Sizemore, Ernie Thacker, Ricky Skaggs, Ricky Lee and Junior Blankenship.