Ralph Stanley – The blue, blue grass of home
They presented a show that was all the more appealing to Stanley’s audience for being almost ritualistic in form and content, with a cappella gospel tunes, sales pitches, solo numbers, Stanley Brothers favorites, personal appearance announcements, new songs, and sideman features following one another in a sequence that hearkened back to the days of old.
The passage of some 30 years since Carter’s death brought increasing recognition of Ralph Stanley’s genius, as much a matter of iron-willed perseverance as it is of the music itself. With generations of musicians growing up learning Stanley Brothers songs and staring up at Ralph and his band from festival audiences, the Stanley influence strengthened rather than diminished, setting the stage for — and this must surely sound odd when said of a man of 71 — Ralph Stanley’s ultimate breakthrough. Clinch Mountain Country is meant to move his career to a new level, and it’s almost certain to do just that.
“Everyone just wanted to come in and do it,” Stanley says of his new album. Produced and engineered by Nashville bluegrass and acoustic country ace Bil VornDick, Clinch Mountain Country features the Clinch Mountain Boys — Jack Cooke (bass), James Alan Shelton (lead guitar), James Price (fiddle), Steve Sparkman (banjo), John Rigsby (mandolin) and Ralph’s son, Ralph Stanley II (guitar) — backing the elder Stanley, while bringing aboard a boatload of guests for a collection of songs that leans heavily, though not exclusively, on the Stanley Brothers canon.
The instrumental sound is vintage Stanley, with Ralph himself sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in back. While he mentions a duet with Patty Loveless on “Pretty Polly” as a particular favorite, the most elegant cut on the album features Diamond Rio doing a breathtaking trio on “How Can We Thank Him For What He Has Done”, with Ralph doing Carter’s recitation.
Other entertainers — Stanley’s word — who appear are “some of my favorites that I wanted to record with me like George Jones, and of course Dwight Yoakam, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless [and] Alison Krauss.” But there are plenty of others, some tapped by VornDick and some who got wind of the project and asked to be included, including Gillian Welch, Rhonda Vincent, Porter Wagoner, Junior Brown, Joe Diffie, BR5-49, Hal Ketchum, Tim O’Brien, Vern Gosdin, Jim Lauderdale, Connie Smith, the Kentucky HeadHunters…and Bob Dylan.
Dylan’s presence is clearly a valued contribution, though his performance is the most widely divergent from the original. Ralph notes that “every bit of this, everybody that sung with me, sung my style, they used my band, and it’s all got the old-time touch to it. Everybody that recorded with me was familiar with what I done and they didn’t have a bit of trouble a-doin’ it.”
When I ask him about Dylan’s cut, “The Lonesome River” — Dylan is certainly familiar with what Ralph has done, but certainly does the song in his own fashion — Ralph’s comments reflect a complex mixture of friendship, wariness (toward the line of discussion, not toward Dylan), and recognition of his guest’s enormous appeal: “I think Bob Dylan added a lot to this. I was glad to get Bob, and I understand that he turned down several groups this year, you know, that wanted him to sing with them. I really appreciate it….He had wanted to record with me, and I wanted him to record with me.” When I reminded Stanley that the song was always done as a trio — with Dylan it’s transformed into a duet — he gravely replied, “It’s altogether different, it’ll just be a different song. And I think it’s good.”
The feeling is obviously mutual, not only between Stanley and Dylan, who has been quoted as saying his appearance on the Stanley record “is the highlight of my career,” but between the old master and all of his guests. That so many singers of such fame made their way to the studio to “stand beside me” — an important reference to the fact that virtually all of the tracks were recorded live, rather than with parts dubbed in at another time and in another place — is a source of obvious and legitimate pride to Stanley, but no more so than their familiarity with his material. “You know,” he beams, “a lot of the entertainers that helped on this new project, see, they’d heard all these old songs. Most of the entertainers that sung with me on it, they picked the song they wanted to do, most of them, and they had heard all of that old stuff, and they wanted to do it.”
That might not be surprising for some of the guests from the fields of bluegrass or gospel — Marty Stuart, Claire Lynch, Judy & David Marshall, and former Stanley sideman Ricky Skaggs, for instance — but it seems to apply equally to more unexpected guests, whose connection to bluegrass is certainly less obvious. Joe Diffie, for one, enthused about having “this legend standing beside me, singing together, and not just me singing along to one of his records.”
VornDick, who spent “the better part of a year” on the project, says, “We have different musicians and singers interpreting where they feel the song is at in the 1990s.” This is true enough, but where that is generally ends up meshing appropriately with the Stanley sound. Ralph’s enthusiasm about the album is genuine, but he’s not unmindful of its potential for opening new doors.
In the straightforward terms with which he usually addresses business matters, he notes: “Everybody that helped me out no doubt has got a lot of fans, and I figure that maybe all of those fans may become my fans and, you know, vice versa — a lot of the people that listen to me, why, they enjoy hearing these other people, too.” That two-way aspect is real, but not even Stanley would be likely to claim the traffic is going to run equally both ways, nor is it the purpose of Clinch Mountain Country to win new fans for platinum-selling country stars.
Clinch Mountain Country might be considered the capstone of Ralph Stanley’s career, but that’s hardly his motivation. In the ebb and flow of our conversation, the subject of “carrying on” never failed to stir his interest. I imagine that this was in part because he had recently lost mandolinist and high harmony singer John Rigsby, a young fellow who had left to join another ex-sideman, Melvin Goins. Biographer John Wright has described a cycle of estrangement and reconciliation with those who depart the Clinch Mountain Boys, but Rigsby’s departure was so recent that Stanley was perhaps in a pre-estrangement phase, for he wasn’t reluctant to discuss Rigsby, the role he had played in making Clinch Mountain Country — “he done a good job” — or the role he had given up in leaving the band.
Stanley wants the music to outlast him, and not only through recordings. After bringing a young banjo player, Steve Sparkman, into the band in 1994 when Stanley couldn’t play for several weeks after an accident, Ralph kept him on, so that now the Clinch Mountain Boys are one of the very few bands to employ two banjos, and not with contrasting styles, either. He’s had his son with him for several years, too, lately filling the lead singer role (Ralph II not only plays guitar on the new album, he sings three leads). “I knew that maybe someday I’d have to quit playing the banjo, and my son, Ralph II, I hope and expect that he’ll carry on,” Stanley said. “I figured Steve would be a good man then later on.” But he adds later: “Of course, I’m not figuring on getting out, you know, until I have to. I hope I’ve got a few years.”
The odds seem pretty good that he does. Ralph Stanley isn’t one to let much get in his way. When I observed that his voice seems more powerful these days than it did a couple years ago, he unhesitatingly concurred, and when I asked him why that was so, he offered this explanation: “I guess just will; the will to do it, I guess. I just wanted to — I didn’t want to lose nothing, and I guess I just put out more.” That’s the view of a man for whom inactivity isn’t something to be sought after.
As I took leave of him — showtime at Bristol’s restored Paramount Theatre was imminent, and the Clinch Mountain Boys were already tuning up — I wondered aloud if he listened to any contemporary country music radio, the home turf for a healthy number of his guests on Clinch Mountain Country.
“When I’m not on the road playing,” he offered, ” I’m out doing something, and I just don’t have time, or don’t take time to listen to the radio.” And what was it that occupied his time? “Well, I’ve got a little farm, and I’ve got cattle and so forth, and I — I’m pretty much doing that. I may go to a stock market and watch a cattle sale, and sometimes I buy one or two, and sometimes take four or five to market. I’ve just got to be outdoors.”
No Depression contributing editor Jon Weisberger first saw Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys in New York City in the early 1980s and credits the experience with preserving him from urban insanity.