The Doctor is still in
The Aspen Times
A lot has changed since Dr. Ralph Stanley began his music career. Never mind the advent of YouTube, dubstep, earbuds and thousand-dollar tickets to see One Direction at First Midwest Amphitheatre. When Stanley started making his name as a musician, Elvis Presley was still a few years away from stardom, bebop was just being born, and LP records were unheard of.
But with virtually everything about music — the way it is made and sold, where it was played, the way it sounds — having been altered nearly beyond recognition, Stanley believes his music has stayed fundamentally the same over his 68-year career.
“I would think it’s more stayed the same, more that than not,” Stanley said from his home in Coeburn, in the same region of Appalachia in the extreme western tip of Virginia where he was born in 1927. “I doubt if it changed, and the reason is I try to be myself all the time, try to be natural. I don’t try to put on anything. Keep it where it started.”
A primary reason Stanley has stuck to his instrument (the banjo), his approach to playing it (a step away from the popular three-finger roll, developed by bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs), his vocal sound (a tenor with all the creaks and cracks left intact) and his songs (with age-old themes of God, the mountains, heartache and hard times) is that there hasn’t been a need to mess with any of it. Success came so quickly and unexpectedly, it startled even Stanley.
Stanley was 19 when he finished a year’s service in the Army. His father and his brother Carter picked him up and whisked him right from the bus station to the radio station.
“I sang a song on the radio before I even got home,” Stanley said. “Carter was waiting for me; he had arranged it before I got there.”
The training the Stanley brothers received was minimal. They didn’t grow up on church music, and their parents didn’t sit around the house playing.
“There wasn’t too much music at the time,” Stanley said. “I just heard a few radio shows and not too many of them.”
An aunt, though, had a banjo. Stanley doesn’t remember being especially anxious to get his hands on it, but his mother bought it for him when he was in his mid-teens. Somehow, between the time he got the banjo and his discharge from the Army a few years later, he developed an attractive sound. He and Carter — who played guitar and sang lead in the Stanley Brothers & the Clinch Mountain Boys — were a hit as soon as they made that appearance on the radio.
“We started right off and couldn’t find buildings big enough for people to put us in,” he said.
Stanley added that the rise of the Stanley Brothers coincided with a new radio station in Virginia to air their songs. But a bigger factor in their success might have been the uniqueness of the music, which Stanley said came straight from the heart. He has called it “old-time, mountain style,” distinguishing it from the mainstream bluegrass music developed a few years earlier by Bill Monroe.
“They hadn’t been used to it. It was a different sound,” he said. “We just done it natural — like I’m talking to you, natural. I didn’t try to put anything extra in a song, just play it the way it went.”
There were highs and lulls in the Stanley Brothers’ career. Early on, they sold records in big numbers and signed with Columbia Records. There was a 1951 car accident that injured Ralph and almost ended the group’s career. Bluegrass overall experienced a drop in popularity in the 1950s, but the Stanley Brothers retained their reputation by moving to Florida and headlining a weekly syndicated radio show, the Suwanee River Jamboree, for five years. A harsh blow was delivered when Carter, who had been the group’s primary songwriter, died in 1966. But Ralph carried on as leader of the Clinch Mountain Boys, who headlined major bluegrass festivals with their raw, old sound. Among those who put in time as Clinch Mountain Boys was Ricky Skaggs, who went on to become a mainstream country icon and more recently a bluegrass star.
In 2000, at age 73, Stanley experienced a phenomenal, out-of-nowhere surge. T-Bone Burnett, a musician and a producer who specialized in roots-rock projects, had been hired to help create the soundtrack for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” by the Coen brothers.
“He was down to earth, not hard to get with. We went good together,” Stanley said of Burnett.
The film was set in rural Mississippi in the 1930s, and the soundtrack was designed to deepen the flavor of the setting, with a variety of Southern field hollers, spirituals and bluegrass tracks. The film did well, while the soundtrack was a sensation, putting old-style acoustic music in the spotlight like it hadn’t been in decades. Bluegrass itself received a boost — acoustic players still talk about the “‘O Brother’ effect” — as did the profiles of musicians including Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss and Norman Blake. The album earned a Grammy for album of the year and sold more than 7 million copies.
Stanley was at the center of the phenomenon. His a cappella version of the somber traditional tune “O, Death” was craggy and ancient, perfectly capturing the mood and earning its own Grammy. The album closed with the Stanley Brothers’ version of “Angel Band.” Following the release of the soundtrack, a group of the musicians, including Stanley, went out on the Down From the Mountain Tour; a show in Nashville, Tenn., at the legendary Ryman Auditorium was made into a prominent documentary. The film closed with Stanley singing “O, Death” and “Angel Band.”
“It done wonders for me,” Stanley said of the activity surrounding “O Brother.” “It put me in new faces, new ears. So many people who’d never heard me. It just spread out more. The last few years, we’ve had to turn people away. I sure have enjoyed it.”
Stanley, who has a pile of momentous honors to his name — a museum in his name in Virginia, a National Medal of Arts, membership in the Grand Ole Opry — is looking at the final chapter of his touring days. Last year he announced his farewell tour; his Clinch Mountain Boys, who now feature Stanley’s son, Ralph Stanley II, and a grandson, Nathan Stanley, will perform Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House.
Stanley isn’t certain if his voice and hands are in as good of shape as they once were. At one point he said he’s always tried to get better.
“I guess I’ve improved with experience,” he noted.
At another point, he said, “I don’t know if I’m as limber or good as when I started.”
But he is sure that listeners will get a genuine experience of hearing exactly who Ralph Stanley is.
“I don’t listen to other music so much,” he said. “I don’t want to sound like anybody. I want my own sound.”
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