Ralph Stanley, 1927-2016: He Took the Music ‘Back into the Mountains’

When bluegrass musicians began experimenting with blends of rock and roll, jazz, and country, this “Clinch Mountain Boy” held fast to tradition. Ralph Stanley’s voice helped define a musical genre, a region, and an approach to making art that matters.

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 It comes from the mountains, like the dogs a-barking, the hoot owls a-hollering… It’s a sound like no other sound, that comes from the mountains and hills of home where Ralph and Carter were born and raised.

This is how Melvin Goins describes the Ralph Stanley sound in The Ralph Stanley Story documentary film.

When Ralph Stanley died on June 22, 2016, we lost one of the most amazing musicians to come from the Appalachian Mountains. Ralph didn’t move to Nashville. Even after he was a member of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, he still lived near the Smith Ridge mountain farm where he was raised. His mother, Lucy Stanley, and father, Lee Stanley, were from Smith Ridge. Ralph’s mom taught Ralph to play the banjo when he was young. Ralph’s older brother Carter Stanley also learned to play and sing from their family.

Ralph and Carter grew up in a lively mountain community, where Ralph’s uncle, John Smith, preached and led the singing at the McClure Primitive Baptist Church. Musical instruments were not allowed in the church, but Ralph learned to sing in that old-time, mournful way of the Primitive Baptists.

After returning from World War II, Ralph and Carter formed the Stanley Brothers and they named their band “The Clinch Mountain Boys.” Simple. Straight-forward. They were boys from the Clinch Mountain area.

The early songs were traditional mountain songs like “Pretty Polly” and “Little Maggie.” Simple. Straight-forward. Carter also wrote some amazing songs, like “White Dove.”

In the deep rolling hills of old Virginia
There’s a place that I love so well…

In the late 1940’s, the Stanley Brothers had a daily show on the new radio station in Bristol, WCYB. Their show named, “Farm and Fun Time,” always included a gospel song for “the sick and shut-in.” Bags of mail came to the station and the Stanley Brothers signed a record deal with Capitol Records.

Ralph played both the older “clawhammer” style of banjo and the emerging three-finger style. The famous folklorist Alan Lomax described the music as “folk music in overdrive.”

In the 50’s and 60’s thousands of people left the mountains and moved to Cincinnati, Detroit, Columbus, and Chicago. The music of the Stanley Brothers helped them deal with their home sickness and their difficulties in the city factories. “Rank Stranger” became a favorite:

I wandered again to my home in the mountains
Where in youth’s early dawn I was happy and free
I looked for my friends, but I never could find them
I found they were all rank strangers to me

In 1966 Ralph faced one of the biggest challenges of his life. His brother Carter, the band’s lead singer and spokesman, died young. At first, Ralph didn’t know what to do. He received mail encouraging him to continue the band. And so, Ralph hired Larry Sparks as the lead singer and hit the road.

The trailer from The Ralph Stanley Story,  directed by Herb E. Smith.

Bluegrass music festivals were springing up and hundreds of new bands were forming. Some new bands called their music “new grass” and added rock songs to their playlists. Ralph decided to go in the opposite direction. He described it as “taking the music more back into the mountains.”

Ralph spent most of the next 40 years on the road. Ralph, Curly Ray Cline, and Jack Cooke became the core of the Clinch Mountain Boys. Dozens of other musicians and singers came and went, but the Stanley sound remained throughout the band changes.

When Ralph was 73 years old he had a hit song. “Oh, Death” was recorded for the Coen Brothers film, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. The sound track album was a best seller and Ralph won a Grammy for his unaccompanied Primitive Baptist style of singing.

Today, I miss Ralph and the simple, straight-forward style of the generation of people who remember the time before electricity and running water. Of course, some of our family members will move to distant cities. They have their reasons. Those of us who choose to stay, who care about these mountains and the well-being of mountain communities, must remember Ralph and the old songs. We must also write new ones, so that the next generations will be strong. “The mountains shall bring peace to the people.” Psalms (72:3)

Herb E. Smith is a filmmaker at Appalshop, the media arts and cultural center that focuses on the people and issues of Central Appalachia. He is the director of the film “The Ralph Stanley Story.”


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