Ralph Stanley Sings the Truth: New Documentary Captures Voice and and Place of Bluegrass Legend

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BY WALTER HOWERTON, JR

Ralph Stanley’s voice can make a godless man wish he could believe.

He can make a rootless man long for the old homeplace, even if he never really had one.

He can fill anybody’s once-familiar world with rank strangers and make a man feel the guilt and despair of being gone far too long, even if he really has never been anyplace much.

And in a world of dysfunctional families, no-fault divorces and unresolved Freudian ambiguities, he can make a man remember the worst of families fondly and hope – at least for the duration of a song – he will be reunited with his momma and daddy and all the rest of them on that heavenly shore someday.

Ralph Stanley sings of a world where white doves mourn (in the deep and rolling hills of old Virginia) since mother and daddy are dead, where knives plunge into white bosoms, where there is bitter poison in a little glass of wine, where Pretty Polly sees her newly dug grave with a spade lying by and falls to her knees to beg vainly for her life and her instantly guilt-ridden killer goes directly to jail.

In the world of Ralph Stanley’s voice, love is real, jealousy is real, faithful lovers and unfaithful lovers sometimes get what is coming to them, sometimes not – and what could be more real than that?

Heaven and hell are real. Death comes to the just and unjust, old and young, mothers, fathers, children, murderers and their victims. Death comes for anyone and everyone. And it is real death.

His is the a cappella voice that pleads with death to “spare me over for a little while” in the Coen brothers’ most recent film, Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? And his voice also is the implacable voice of death that gives no one a break. “I’ll fix your legs so you can’t walk, I’ll lock your jaw so you can’t talk.” We are doomed to be food for worms, ready or not, and by the time the song is over there is no doubt about it and not a damn thing we can do about it.

But the way Ralph Stanley sings it, after death, salvation is real, too.

George Clooney and the rest of The Soggy Bottom Boys lip-synched their way through “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” in Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? When he sings it, Ralph Stanley is the man of constant sorrow.

In a lip-synch world, he is a 74-year-old man who still knows how to sing and keeps on singing.

The truth lives when Ralph Stanley sings. And whether the truth is happy or sad, he sings it without flinching. He sings old, but he does not make us long for the good old days; he makes us long for something older than that, lost deep in the rolling hills of our darkest selves. His old, high, tall and powerful voice blows away the mist of nostalgia and peels away the hard gloss of self-indulgent cynicism and makes us believe – or at least want to – with all our selfish, godless, loveless, homeless, modern hearts, that the darkest hour really is just before dawn.

Country singer Patty Loveless sings a duet with Stanley in a new documentary about his life. She calls him a “soulful singer” and when she sings her duet with him, the camera catches her flinching a little in the face of the bare-souled power of it when he stands close and sings the opening lines of “Pretty Polly.” She shakes her head in awe and seems almost hesitant to join in when her turn comes. But she does. She goes where he leads (Stanley leads even when he is singing harmony) and together they sing themselves into that old place where Stanley’s voice lives.

“Soon as he started singing, there was tears swelling up in my eyes,” Loveless says, “just because he makes me feel that way.”

The documentary is The Ralph Stanley Story (to be shown on KET on March 16). The film was made by Herb E. Smith of Appalshop and it shows Stanley for what he is: an Appalachian homeboy who has come a long way by never drifting too far from the hills of his home in Southwest Virginia.

It is a film about a voice and a place.

dr. Ralph Stanley – he picked up an honorary doctorate a few years ago and proudly had it carved into his banjo strap, spelling out for everyone to see just how far a mountain man can come – belongs to bluegrass legend. With his brother Carter, he was one half of the Stanley Brothers, who, along with Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs, are as near to the primal beating heart of bluegrass music as anyone can get.

Beginning just after World War II, Ralph and Carter began to sing on radio and record songs that were more deeply rooted in their mountain heritage than the jazz-influenced music of Monroe and others. They kept things simple. There was an elemental mournfulness in Carter’s lead singing and a high mountain lonesomeness in Ralph’s high tenor voice that set them apart.

They sang traditional songs and even with the songs they wrote, they sang them wrapped in tradition with their voices.

They worked the rich and rocky home ground of their upbringing in the Clinch Mountains – Ralph learned his first old-time banjo licks from his mother and the brothers heard their father sing mountain ballads – and made something distinctly their own out of it. Somehow they pulled together the a cappella harmony singing of a Baptist upbringing that didn’t allow instruments in church with bluegrass banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin and bass and brought stark harmonies out of the church and into the world in new ways. And people listened. For a few years. As Ralph Stanley says in the documentary, “You can wear out anything. You can eat enough of chocolate pie.” There were hard times for a few years, too.

They went through the boom and bust cycle that haunts the music business, then found themselves in demand again as the folk music revival of the early 1960s took hold. A younger generation of mostly city kids discovered bluegrass music and started learning to play it (Roy Acuff came to call what the city kids were doing “Jewgrass music,” though he was more than willing to cash in when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recorded “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”). Through it all, Ralph and Carter simply kept on being the Stanley Brothers.

Then, on Dec. 1, 1966, Carter Stanley died. It was no real surprise. He had been sick for a couple of years.

One of the most touching moments in the new documentary is a section showing an 8 mm home movie of Ralph, an obviously declining, biscuit-stealing Carter, their gray-haired mother with a big pot of something good (Ralph assures us in his narration) cooking on the stove. At that moment, Carter had less than six months to live.

(A friend of mine was in one of those long-haired hippie-boy bluegrass bands that were common in those days, the bands that eventually spawned the bluegrass experiments known now as New Grass. He recalled hearing the news of Carter’s death as his band drove through the cold and starry Southern night on the way to a gig. “There was nothing to do but pull in at the nearest roadside bar and get drunk and cry,” he said. And they did. Carter had been dead for almost 10 years by the time I heard the story, and my friend still felt the loss as we stood there between songs in the light of a campfire at a North Georgia bluegrass festival, our instruments warm but quiet in our hands. He had tears in his eyes as we started to play and sing another one.)

Thousands of people showed up for Carter’s funeral. Bill Monroe sang. George Shuffler, a band member and one of the pallbearers remembers that Monroe sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” so powerfully it would “bring a tear to a glass eye.”

It was a blow to the music and to Ralph Stanley. Carter always had been the front man. Ralph had been the bookkeeper when he wasn’t singing and playing the banjo. But within a short time, Ralph and the band were back on the road with Ralph up front, doing it the way the Stanley Brothers always had done it.

About four years later, something new happened. Actually, something old happened. Bluegrass started to change. New Grass arrived on the scene. J.D. Crowe, Sam Bush, Tony Rice and others wandered off onto new ground. The Charles River Valley Boys did a whole album of Beatles songs.

Ralph Stanley didn’t.

The new bands were “changin’ it around,” Stanley says. “I sort of went back farther than the Stanley Brothers did. I took my lead singers a little more back into the mountains.”

Herb Smith, who made the Stanley documentary, thinks it wasn’t a case of Stanley simply doing what he always had done. “Ralph had thought a lot about it. He knew the sound he had was different from other bands. And he was in it for the long haul. He knew the music fad (New Grass) would run its course. So, he stayed true to what he grew up hearing.”

And that is what he has been doing for more than 30 years since his brother died.

Not that Stanley has anything against the young or their music. He has sung with Bob Dylan. Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley were members of his band when they were little more than boys. He was nominated for a Grammy singing with Dwight Yokam. He has sung with Loveless, Vince Gill, John Anderson, George Jones (now there is a combination of original voices to be reckoned with), Marty Stuart (who got his own start in bluegrass, playing mandolin with Lester Flatt at 13 years old), Gillian Welch, Allison Krauss, Kathy Mattea and others.

Steve Earle teamed up with Del McCoury on “The Mountain” a couple of years ago to offer what he called “my interpretation, to the best of my ability and with all of my heart… of the music that Bill Monroe invented.” He was aiming to create music with the legs Monroe gave his songs, songs being sung somewhere all the time. He almost got there. When Ralph Stanley teamed up with younger songwriter Jim Lauderdale for an album called “I Feel Like Singing Today,” they did get there, with Stanley’s voice touching Lauderdale’s lyrics with the strength to make them stand up and walk all on their own.

But when Stanley sings with other performers young or old, it is a gathering of voices on Ralph’s hilly true ground.

contemporary country music is a gooey, soulless mix of skinny women in sexy outfits (tacky if you’re inclined to be nice about it, slutty if you had a grandmother like mine and Ralph’s), pin-headed guys in big hats, headset microphones and videotape. It’s Garth and Shania and Faith music. It’s music to look at. It’s no-risk suburban music coming from no place in particular and bound for no place special. Who’s singing? Who cares.

Ralph Stanley comes from a time when he says radio was a lot more important than television is now. He and his band aren’t really much to look at. He is an older man with a curly thatch of white hair under his cowboy hat. He and his band get dressed up in shirts and ties when they play. They’re about as thrilling to look at as a bunch of guys standing around at a church picnic, the kind of guys you look at and just know there are lots more like them where they came from. But real music is made to be heard anyway.

Stanley never appears on the screen in Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? But he doesn’t need to. He has one of those voices that stirs up visions all on its own. And the movie’s soundtrack, which has climbed the country music charts and sold surprisingly well despite the fact that it receives very little radio play in these days of no-fault country music, now is introducing his voice and visions to a whole new generation.

Patty Loveless describes Stanley’s voice as “mournful” with “this ache” and “this crying.” She says, “I used to think those songs were sad,” but now she knows “they are very soulful.”

Soulful. Perhaps that explains why people applaud, sometimes even in darkened theaters, when he sings.

After 55 years in the bluegrass music business and approaching 75 years old, Ralph Stanley has been on the road a long time. He still is on the road night after night. But somehow, he never is far from home.

He built himself a house down on the paved road just a few miles from the winding dirt road along Smith’s Ridge, where the Stanley homeplace once stood and not far from the Hills of Home Cemetery where Carter and other family members are buried.

“I’ve liked home and didn’t see any use to moving to the big cities,” Stanley says. “I’d rather stay right here and be an old-timer and a country boy.”

In a time when many of the rest of us are scared to stay in one place too long because we might just grow old there, Ralph Stanley sings out fearlessly, the voice of his mountain home and at home with his mountain voice. And he is more soulful than any gangsta on any urban street corner anywhere because his music comes from so near the heart where he lives and winds up so close to the heart of where the rest of us simply spend our lives.

Dr. Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys along with Del McCoury and the Del McCoury Band will team up for one show only at the Kentucky Theater on Wednesday, March 28. Tickets are on sale for $24.50. Please call (859) 231-6997.



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