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Ralph Stanley's Old-Time Music
Because his raw, plaintive tenor graces the platinum-selling soundtrack of Joel and Ethan Coen's film O Brother, Where Art Thou, Ralph Stanley is getting a chance to bring his “old-time music” to legions of listeners who wouldn't normally be exposed to sounds so obscure and archaic. But for a legend who's been playing this brand of music for over 50 years, sudden and unexpected attention is handled in stride. “The music I play is timeless,” Stanley told me in a phone interview in the middle of one of his annual California tours. “Big hits are here today and gone tomorrow, but these old mountain songs last. And I'll sing 'em wherever I can, because I want 'em to keep on going.”
The musical style that Ralph Stanley calls “old-time mountain music” is best known as bluegrass and in the pantheon of bluegrass legends, the Stanley Brothers (Ralph and his late brother Carter) and Flatt and Scruggs rank just below Bill Monroe as pivotal figures in the tradition's birth. Despite the “ancient” and “timeless” sound of the music, however, the genre known as bluegrass emerged in the 1940s, making it only slightly older than rock and roll. Yet with roots in Anglo-Celtic ballads, Appalachian Mountain string-band traditions, gospel, and blues, Bill Monroe, “the Father of Bluegrass,” self-consciously invented an old-fashioned sound. The music is string driven by musicians playing acoustic instruments including guitars, fiddle, banjo, dobro, and bass. To go with this non-modern instrumentation, the subject matter of bluegrass is based in rural values and tales of family, hardship, death, sin, and salvation.
For all its emphasis on tradition, bluegrass arrived as, and remains, unconventional entertainment. Hard driving rhythms, break-neck tempos, and stunning instrumental virtuosity make bluegrass a sophisticated and complex music akin to jazz. Mix in high pitched, mournful vocals and you've got a stubbornly untrendy sound permanently relegated to the small, low profit segment of the country music market. Bluegrass is music heard only on small record labels and non-commercial radio. Still, at clubs, state fairs, fiddle contests, and hundreds of folk and bluegrass festivals the music thrives.
For some, people of the Virginia highlands and small rural communities scattered through Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee, this music rings the truths of a way of life that still seems rooted in depression era America. For others, bluegrass is alternative music, an uncom- mercialized expression of a struggle for meaning, ties to the land and community. Commenting on the tradition's enduring appeal, Stanley explained, “It's just honest, simple music that touches people.”
The “simple” sound codified in the wake of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys never quite fit the music of Ralph Stanley. When Monroe fused rural country traditions with blues and jazz, he created a ferocious, blazingly fast ensemble music reflecting the increased pace of town and city life following the depression and World War II. But the music of Carter and Ralph Stanley offered a different strain of the “high, lonesome sound.” In the Stanley Brothers “old-time mountain bluegrass,” Anglo-Celtic roots took precedence over the blues. Centered around Carter's lead vocals and guitar and Ralph's banjo and tenor harmonies, the Stanley Brothers performed a slower, sadder body of songs evoking the harsh life of southwestern Virginia. And from the time of Carter's death in 1966, Ralph Stanley has continued to extend this distinctive, spine-chilling sound that defines his life and purpose. As country/bluegrass performer Ricky Skaggs described it to writer Nicholas Dawidoff: “Ralph Stanley brings the lonesomeness, the hardness, the poverty, the faith of Appalachia to his singing. He sounds exactly like where he comes from.”
Born in 1927 in Stratton, Virginia, Stanley grew up hearing ballads, sacred songs, fiddle and banjo tunes transplanted in the Appalachian Mountains from England, Scotland, and Ireland. His father, who farmed and ran a sawmill, sang ballads and hymns in the McClure Primitive Baptist Church with “a real lonesome old-time mountain voice.” Stanley picked up banjo from his mother, and from friends and family he learned of the desperate and dangerous side of the wider community. By the time the Stanley Brothers were formed in 1946, all of these influences had come together in a rich, emotional folk expression carrying the morality, history, and spirit of “mountain people.”
Recalling his early years and the roots of his music, Stanlely said: “When I grew up, we didn't have running water, electricity, and bathrooms. It was a lot of hard work and hard times and suffering. And all of that's in the music. Old-time music and old-time singing are not something somebody teaches you. It just comes out of the way people live.”
The suffering Stanley speaks of, runs deep in the bluegrass tradition. Tales of poverty, murder, suicide, alcoholism, and all manner of romantic and family tragedies provide much of the classic material of the genre. But in places where life seems so profoundly doomed and desperate, sacred themes are just as essential. In 1946, when the Stanley Brothers made their first radio appearance on the “Farm and Fun Time” program on WCYB in Bristol, Virginia, tragic ballads and gospel tunes supplied the bulk of their repertoire. And with the WCYB signal reaching into Tennessee and North Carolina, the “Stanley Sound” became almost instantly popular.
Even in their early days, the Stanley Brothers had a distinctive appeal. With the clear, rich lead singing of Carter and the craggy high tenor harmonies of Ralph, the Stanley's created some of the most sublime duet singing in the history of country music. As they moved from “covers” to original material, penning new songs in old-time styles, they produced dozens of tunes such as “The Fields Have Turned Brown,” “White Dove,” “Man Of Constant Sorrow,” and “Little Glass Of Wine” that have become bluegrass standards. Beyond the world of bluegrass, the Stanley Brothers canon gradually came to influence generations of folk, rock, and alternative country artists including Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Wilco, Ricky Skaggs, and Dwight Yoakam.
The great Stanley Brothers duo, however, came to an end with Carter's death, at the age of 41, of liver damage brought on by alcoholism. Overcoming his grief and natural shyness, Ralph Stanley hesitantly moved to center stage. As a writer, he continued to plow themes of tragedy and faith. But as a lead singer, his primitive, quavering voice discovered ever deeper wells of sorrow. Discussing his decision to continue performing without his brother, Stanley said: “I really didn't know if I could do it. Carter always talked more and I was more in the back. But I didn't really want to quit and guess a lot people didn't want me too either, because I kept on going bigger than ever.”
At the time of Carter Stanley's death, bluegrass was an established regional music with little visibility outside the South. But with the folk boom of the 1960s, elder pioneers of blues and country traditions connected to a younger generation of listeners whose political and social values sparked an interest in the music of the oppressed and exploited. Along with Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys found new fans in college towns and folk festivals all across the country.
More than three decades later, the poignant Stanley Sound continues to evolve, retaining its core “mountain audience” while steadily gaining new converts through a busy schedule of touring and recording.
Since 1967, Stanley's group, the Clinch Mountain Boys, has become a schoolhouse for teaching old-time music. Talented singers and players such as Charles Sizemore, Larry Sparks, Ricky Skaggs, and the late Keith Whitley all gained early recognition in increasingly popular editions of the Stanley band. Now, with over 160 recordings to his name, Grammy nominations, and countless tributes and acknowledgments from fellow musicians, Ralph Stanley seems assured that the legacy of old-time music will live on.
In 1998, just after the release of Clinch Mountain Country, a series of duets with big name performers such as Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, George Jones, and Bob Dylan, Stanley invited me on his tour bus before a show to hear some tracks from his new album. After listening to his duet with Dylan on “The Lonesome River,” Stanley explained: “You know, all these people on the album, for them to know these songs and want to do them with me, that makes me feel proud. It makes me feel like, even after I'm gone, this music is going to last.” Z