Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys let off some steam.
By Lisa Weeks
FEBRUARY 9, 1998: DESPITE A LIFETIME of honors for his achievements and contributions, including the National Heritage Award, Ralph Stanley remains a devout and humble singer and banjo player from Dickenson County, Virginia.
His music has been a source of inspiration for generations of bluegrass players, as well as folk artists, country singers, and rock-and-rollers. Today it's influencing the newest wave of roots and country insurgents.
He was nominated for three Grammys in 1994, and Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys' Short Life of Trouble: Songs of Greyson and Whittier, a tribute to the 1920s song-writing duo, is currently nominated for Bluegrass Album of the Year. Stanley is also well known for his healthy catalogue of a cappella and gospel work, as well as instrumental Appalachian and bluegrass-acquainted gospel songs.
Stanley was born in Nora, Virginia, in the Clinch Mountains, which are wedged between Tennessee and Kentucky in Virginia's southwest tip. He learned the banjo at his mother's knee, made music with his family as a youth, and first performed on radio with his brother, Carter, while both were still in high school. The two performed as the Stanley Brothers, later backed by The Clinch Mountain Boys, a group that has changed dramatically in personage and instrumentation throughout the past half-century. It's now composed of talented players whose median age probably falls shy of 30.
Stanley conducts phone interviews from his family homestead in Dickenson County. His son answered, calling, "Dad?" loudly in a thick drawl over a melee of children. The previous night, a freak snowstorm dumped 26 inches on the mountains of southwestern Virginia, and Stanley showed as much polite enthusiasm for discussing the storm as his recent Grammy nomination.
In popular bluegrass lore, Stanley is second only to bluegrass' darling of the Grand Ole Opry, the man considered by most accounts to be the father of the genre, Bill Monroe. But if Stanley has spent much of his career growing out from under a shadow, it was not cast by Monroe, but by the 1966 death of Stanley's brother, Carter, in an auto accident.
Ralph and Carter Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys got their running start in radio, making live appearances on a noon-hour broadcast called Farm and Fun Time, which also featured such future greats as Curley King and the Tennessee Hill Toppers, Charlie Monroe, Mac Wiseman, The Blue Sky Boys, and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
The Stanley Brothers and The Clinch Mountain Boys were ahead of their time in terms of the media exploitation. Featured live on a TV program in Huntington, West Virginia, they were one of the first bluegrass bands to be televised. They were also among the first to tour college campuses and take bluegrass abroad to Europe.
Stanley himself established the Annual Memorial Bluegrass Festival, now in its 28th year, held just a few miles from his home. Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that Ralph Stanley and The Boys have themselves quite a nice web page.
In short, Stanley has simply stayed around, riding successive surges of bluegrass, folk and traditional music, playing the festival circuit and holding on through the leaner years. And those lean times are long gone now: Last year, Stanley and his band worked every weekend but two.
Although Stanley has spent so much of his life on the road, he maintains that home in the Virginia mountains is where his heart is. Even so, the festival circuit has become a home away from home for the past 30 years.
"I'd say half or more, maybe two thirds of the places we repeat year after year," Stanley explains. "So it's like a piece of home in a way."
But back to that Grammy nomination. Will Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, in prim suits, white hats and pointy-toed shoes be on hand for the Big Event?
"I really don't know yet. I think I'll be playing somewhere. But if I don't we'll probably go, I guess. We're working somewhere in New York maybe the night before, in Manhattan." Stanley adds, "Well, we're just a goin' every week. And we don't have anything open now until December of 1998.
"In October it will be 52 years," Stanley says with the same sort of pride tinged with amazement you'd hear in his voice if he were talking about his 52nd wedding anniversary. In a way, though, that's almost exactly what he's talking about.
Beyond his contributions to the wider scope of bluegrass and country music, Stanley's influence on younger musicians shows up repeatedly in unexpected quarters. For example, in a radio interview with Steve Gardner, country singer Richard Buckner waxed rhapsodic: "I'm a big fan of Doc Watson and Ralph Stanley. That's pretty much where I got it, mainly from those two guys. You know, there's a Ralph Stanley album, Almost Home, which is all a cappella, that I play all the time. It's one of the top albums of my life."
How does Stanley feel about the younger generation of players, and what does he think of the latest resurgence of interest in bluegrass among young folk and country players? Stanley merely shrugs off the questions.
"Well, I don't know about all of that," he says with sincerity.
The young players he's most aware of are, of course, in his own band.
Today's Clinch Mountain Boys are Jack Cooke on the upright bass and vocals, James Shelton on lead guitar, Steve Sparkman on banjo, James Price on fiddle, John Rigsby on mandolin, and Ralph Stanley II playing rhythm guitar and handling lead vocals.
"Ralph the second," as his father refers to him, has been touring with the band professionally since the age of 14, and just a few years ago assumed lead vocal responsibility from his father. He's now all of 19.
"Well you know I'm really proud. He's doin' so good, why, it makes me feel real proud indeed."
And just as you'd expect, Stanley would love nothing better than to see his son continue in the family tradition of a life devoted to music.
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