Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys on Tour

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Michael Wade Simpson
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Ralph Stanley, 83, remains the fulcrum of the Clinch Mountain Boys

Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys: Still Crooning After All These Years

The Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Music Center, in rural Clintwood, Va., is on the Crooked Road, Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail. But you don’t need to travel to the land of bluegrass music to hear Stanley himself. The Doctor is alive and singing at 83 with his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, hitting the banjo and wailing in his inimitable style.

Winning a Grammy award for Best Country Male Vocalist in 2001 for his a cappella performance of the song, “O Death” on the soundtrack album for the Coen Brothers film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” a retelling of the Odyssey myth set in Depression-era Mississippi, was a surprise for Stanley. So, most likely, was the fact that the singer in the movie was dressed in a hooded gown, presiding over a Ku Klux Klan lynching, complete with choreographed bonfires, gallows and ritual marching:

“I’m death I come to take the soul
Leave the body and leave it cold
To draw up the flesh off of the frame
Dirt and worm both have a claim
O, Death
O, Death
Won’t you spare me over til another year?”

“We recorded that song two or three times before, but never me singing it by myself” he said, during a phone interview from his home in McClure, Va. “It’s different with music. It happened to be the right sound for that movie. It really caught on, it’s done a whole lot for me,” he said. The soundtrack itself won the Grammy for Album of the Year, and sold more than seven and a half million copies in the U.S.

Bill Monroe, the Grandfather of Bluegrass, once characterized the form as “Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin’. It’s Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It’s blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound. It’s plain music that tells a good story. It’s played from my heart to your heart, and it will touch you. Bluegrass is music that matters.” Known as mountain music, a distinction from the country music popularized in Nashville and other cities, the use of acoustic instrumentation over two or three-part harmonies earned its name because Monroe hailed from Kentucky, the “Bluegrass State.” The Monroe Brothers rose to prominence in the 1930s. Ralph Stanley and his brother Carter formed their band in 1946.

Carter, who died in 1966, was the star, at least at first. On the Stanley Brothers website, they write, “Carter possessed the best lead voice in bluegrass history—rich, emotional, and (in the best sense of the word) lonely. He took a happy song and sang it sad; he took a sad song and sang it sadder. And Ralph’s unworldly mountain tenor matched his brother’s voice perfectly, soaring above and often lightening the emotional load of the lyrics, creating a duet unsurpassed in country history.”

Ralph, who took over the task of singing lead after his brother passed away, said there are many, many songs written by Carter that he still performs today. “I could sing four or five different songs every day for a year, and never have to repeat one. Oh, I’ve got plenty of material.” Some of his favorites include “White Dove,” “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” “Midnight Train” and “Angels Are Singing in Heaven Tonight.”

“In the deep rolling hills of old Virginia,
There’s a place I love too well,
Where I spent many days of my childhood,
In the cabin where we loved so well.
White dove will mourn in sorrow,
The willows will hang their head.
I’ll live my life in sorrow,
Since mother and daddy are dead.
(from “White Dove,” 1949)

Lyrics aside, it is the guitar, bass, fiddle, banjo and mandolin that serve as the engine of this music. Early on, Ralph Stanley moved from a two-fingered style of banjo picking to what he calls his “clawhammer style” which uses three. “I claw it, that’s why I named it that,” he said. “I play different, no one plays like me, I have my own style.” The Primitive Baptist Church, where Ralph, Carter and the rest of his family worshipped as a family, features a tradition of only a capella singing, with multiple harmonies, which must have helped the boys learn their way around the singing they later used in bluegrass. “It’s a lonesome sound,” he said.

Today, Dr. Stanley (he received an honorary degree from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn., in 1976) occasionally performs with Ralph II, who has his own band, and his 16-year-old grandson, Nathan. “He sings lead,” Dr. Stanley said. “I get to harmonize with my grandson and my son.” “My wife says I work too hard,” he said, “but it gets in your blood.”

Stanley was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry, and was awarded a National Medal of Arts. His autobiography, “Man of Constant Sorrow”, coauthored with Eddie Dean, a music writer, came out in October 2009. Asked about the “perils of touring in the 1940s and ’50s,” which was described in the publicity for the new book, he said, “I don’t remember that part. Anytime the bus got in a wreck, I guess that was dangerous. … Word came from New York that they wanted me to write a book, and I was glad to get the chance. It opened the door for more fans and made my old fans bigger ones. I told it like it was.”

Has his life been constant sorrow? “Well, I’ve had sorrow, but I’ve had joy. I’ve played overseas in Japan, Germany, Sweden. I play in New York City a lot. We have as good as fans in New York City as we do in Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. We could play once a month there and have a full house every time.”

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