Ralph Stanley is one of the pillars of modern music. A true icon who has influenced generations of performers, he has helped bring the legacy of centuries-old English and Appalachian music to bear on the country, bluegrass, gospel and pop of the last 60 years.
The list of those who have claimed him as inspiration is legion and includes Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Jerry Garcia and Dwight Yoakam. In recent years he has added immeasurably to the country's cultural tableau, particularly with his contributions to the sensationally popular O Brother, Where Art Thou?--his haunting a capella "O Death," and the film's popularizing of Dan Tyminski's version of "Man Of Constant Sorrow," a signature Stanley tune. Stanley was the featured performer in the "Down From the Mountain" tour that celebrated the film's music, and in D.A. Pennebeker's documentary film about the tour.
His stature is reflected in the many accolades he has received, including three Grammys and six nominations, membership in the Grand Ole Opry, the Library of Congress's "Living Legend" medal, the National Endowment for the Arts' "National Heritage Fellowship," presented by President Ronald Reagan, CMA and ACM "Album of the Year" awards and an honorary Doctorate of Music from Lincoln Memorial University. His own favorite, he says, is his 2002 Grammy for Best Country Male Vocalist in a field that included Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Tim McGraw and Ryan Adams. "I actually don't do what they call country now," he says, "but I was real proud of that." Given his level of accomplishment, he stands with a handful of iconic figures in popular music, including Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Bill Monroe and B. B. King.
Both longtime fans and younger listeners who discovered him through "O Brother" and its offshoots are drawn by the sheer authenticity of his approach.
"I've always respected this old-time music that I do," he says. "Quite a few other artists have tried to change a little for more stardom, but I've stuck to my roots and I always will, as long as I'm able to play."
Stanley remains unfailingly true to that vision, to presenting what he refers "that old-time, mountain-style, what-they-call-bluegrass music" and, at 79, he is as prolific, as popular and as appreciated as he has ever been. The esteem in which he is held by younger generations of musicians is perhaps best seen in his list of duet partners in recent years--George Jones, Patty Loveless, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Alison Krauss, Joan Baez, Dolly Parton and others. He performs well over 100 dates a year with his band the Clinch Mountain Boys, and while he is known as a rather taciturn man, he is admittedly enjoying the appreciation that he and his music have garnered.
His latest project, A Distant Land To Roam: Songs of the Carter Family, fulfills Stanley's long-standing desire to return to the wellspring of much of the past century's country and folk music--the legendary Carter Family. He performs 13 songs popularized by A.P. Carter with his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle, songs with roots deep in the American and European folk tradition and branches spread across modern-day music. Stanley worked on the project with producers Larry Erlich and Bob Neuwirth, and executive producer T Bone Burnett, music producer for O Brother, Where Art Thou? and executive music producer for Walk The Line and Cold Mountain. Working with the Clinch Mountain Boys, Stanley brings his timeless authenticity to bear on Carter classics like the title track, "Worried Man Blues" and the iconic "I'm Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes," creating an effortless blend between his canon and theirs. He draws freely from the sacred tradition with songs "Orphan Child," "God Gave Noah The Rainbow Sign," "Little Moses" and "Longing For Home," and includes a haunting a capella "Motherless Children," a rendition that draws from the primal emotional and vocal depths plumbed in "O Death."
Stanley's own connection to the music and the Carters is a very real one--the Carters came from the same Clinch Mountain region as the Stanleys, and the two family groups performed together in the days when the Stanleys were getting their start. "I met all of the Carters," Stanley says, "and I got to know A.P. pretty well when [my brother] Carter and I were doing our early radio work on WCYB in Bristol, Virginia." Like generations of American stylists, Ralph and Carter Stanley drew on the music of the Carter Family as they established their own sound.
It was a sound Ralph Stanley took in with his mother's milk. He was born February 25, 1927, in Dickenson County, Virginia, amid coal mines, saw mills and hardscrabble farms. He and his older brother Carter learned music from their mother, a five-string banjo player. Ralph worked for a time in the sawmill run by his father, a moonshiner who left the family when Ralph was just 13.
He and Carter began singing as teenagers, and after stints in the Army, they formed a band, debuting on the radio in 1946 as the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, and beginning their recording career a year later. In addition to the Carter Family they were influenced by the Monroe Brothers, among others, and Ralph adapted the three-finger banjo picking style then coming into vogue, giving the group a driving sound that accompanied Carter's smooth leads and Ralph's piercing, aching, other-worldly tenor. It was a sound completely their own, and it set them apart in the burgeoning world of bluegrass. The Stanley Brothers pushed harder into old territory, into the haunting Appalachian music that had developed from English ballads and dance music adapted to a grimly harsh mountain life.
"They were as fresh and innovative in bluegrass music as the Beatles were in rock," says Grammy-nominated producer Ben Isaacs, whose father Joe once played and sang in Stanley's band. "Their harmonies were that much different than anything up to that point. It was the way they blended as brothers, and the way Ralph held and released notes. They were a big influence on The Isaacs as well as on many other people."
They played on radio stations from West Virginia to North Carolina and recorded for several labels, becoming, by the late '50s, one of a handful of the most important figures in bluegrass and traditional music. They continued working through the rise of rock 'n' roll, a tough time for traditional country, touring Europe in 1966, just before Carter's death at the age of 41. After toying with and abandoning the idea of giving up music, Ralph hired Larry Sparks as lead singer and began pushing the music farther toward traditional mountain sounds, introducing the a capella quartet style singing he had seen in church as a youngster to bluegrass music.
The advent of bluegrass festivals and the ever-widening influence of the genre on other forms of music helped Stanley achieve legendary status. Young devotees of Stanley Brothers music like Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs came and went from his band and took his influence into mainstream country and honky-tonk music. Stanley, who keeps up his active touring schedule, has become the patriarch of several genres of music.
"We'd be on the West Coast, where they don't see a lot of Ralph," says Tim Dillman, his friend and road manager during the "Down From The Mountain" tour, "and it would be almost like they'd seen Abraham Lincoln come back to life. You couldn't believe it. People would bring old records to him to sign--he was just an icon."
Stanley himself enjoys the broad appeal recent events have given him. "Since I recorded on the [O Brother] soundtrack," he says, "there have been so many young people, down to four or five years old, that I've gained as fans, where it used to be more older people, and they seem to enjoy and appreciate it as much as any of the others."
Feeding the legend as much as anything is the fact that no level of success has changed his basic approach to life.
"He could be around the biggest stars or everyday people and he treats everybody the same," says Dillman. "He doesn't change a bit. I've never seen that man's personality vary ten degrees. He's the same temperature all the time. It's amazing to me that a man could do what he's done, accomplish what he's accomplished, and be as humble as he is."
It is all part of the authenticity that has, well over 100 albums and 60 years into the journey, given Ralph Stanley a lasting place in the elite echelons of American music.
Live On Stage:
This year you have the privilege of seeing not one, but two bluegrass legends at Bonnaroo. I already profiled Charlie Louvin, but it might be Ralph Stanley that is a little more recognizable mostly for being on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack. Here he is with his the trifecta of "Man Of Constant Sorrow", "Pretty Polly" and "Oh Death"....
Without sounding morbid, you may not get too many more chances to catch Ralph so I'd whole heartily recommend trying to take in some of this legends set.
Head on over to Ralph's official wesbite for more info.
Set Time: 6/17, The Other Tent, 4:15 PM - 5:30 PM
Friday, June 1, 2007