By Kathy Foster-Patton
At seventy-nine years old and after nearly 60 years of singing and playing the banjo for his supper, Dr. Ralph Stanley continues to go strong as a dedicated performer, musician, and salesman. Now one of the elder statesmen of bluegrass, he has recorded over 170 albums and does around 125 shows a year. Fueled by the success of the movie Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? and his brand new release (May 30th), Distant Land to Roam: Songs of the Carter Family, an album full of tracks written by A.P. Carter or popularized by the Carter Family, his music is more popular than ever. Stanley is a humble man, grateful for his accomplishments and honors, which include three Grammy awards, the Library of Congress "Living Legend" Medal, an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Lincoln Memorial University, and he was the first inductee of the millennium into the Grand Ole Opry in 2000.
Stanley was born in Virginia in 1927. Although his mother played claw-hammer banjo and his father sang, his own early music memories are of singing with his brother, Carter. The two began performing on radio shows and locally with the Clinch Mountain Boys in 1946. Stanley still recalls singing "Jealous Lover" with Carter in 1947 at the WCYB radio station. He explains, "Those were good days that I like to remember. We got mail by the sack loads after that. We played there off-and-on for quite a time."
After Carter died in 1966, Ralph stepped up as lead vocalist for the band, forcing the group to change its musical style to match his distinctive, other-worldly voice. Music producer T Bone Burnett describes him as "a punk singer or a rock & roll singer or a country singer. He's a mountain singer is what he really is. He's way closer to Elvis Presley than the notion of 'Dueling Banjos.'"
Ralph Stanley by Tony Stack
During his career, Stanley went from playing the banjo claw-hammer style to a two-finger technique, then on to three fingers. He considers the three-finger method his definitive style but now says he puts more into his singing, due to the impact of arthritis upon his hands. Asked to define the Ralph Stanley sound of mountain music, he answers simply, "Why it's the music and the voice. Nobody has got this old time voice."
Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? changed everything for Stanley, expanding his reach to new audiences and giving him the status of a rock star. He describes how the crowds have changed over the years. "On the Oh Brother tour, we really saw the young people getting involved, crowds in the thousands. I saw young people in tears over a song that they really cared about."
While the lineup of many bands is an ever-changing litany of musicians, the Clinch Mountain Boys tend to settle in and stay put. Bassist Jack Cooke has been a band member for thirty-one years, while most of the others have at least ten years of tenure. One band member, twenty-eight-year-old Ralph Stanley II, was on stage performing with his father almost from the time he could walk. Another is Stanley's thirteen-year-old grandson, Nathan, following in the family tradition.
Clinch Mountain Boys
Stanley and the Clinch Mountain boys recently toured through the Midwest and western U.S. for three weeks, which is considerably longer than they normally like to go out. "We like to go in and out for four to five days at a time. That way when we get tired of being out, it's time to go back home. When we get tired of being home, it's time to go out again." Stanley travels on a spacious bus and describes how touring now differs from that which he did fifty years ago. "It's daylight to dark different. There'd be five people in the car, and they'd lay on each other to sleep. The bass would be on top of the car or even inside, and right when you'd get comfortable, it would fall over and hit you on the neck! No, I don't think I'd be doing it if it was still like that!"