Ralph Stanley comes down from the mountain

Ralph Stanley

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 28, 2003) – No one could have predicted it. In 2002, at the age of 75, Ralph Stanley became a pop star. The rough-hewn and by all accounts gruff country singer and bluegrass pioneer was a featured performer on a number-one album, the soundtrack to “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” His a capella rendition of “O Death” garnered him a Grammy Award for best male country vocal performance. And he shared the honors for album of the year with the other traditional country and folk artists who contributed to the landmark soundtrack.

If someone had suggested to Ralph Stanley a few years back that this is the way he would kick off the 21st century, “I’d have said I’d like very much for that to happen but I doubt if it will,” said Stanley in a recent phone interview from a Chevrolet dealer near his home in Coeburn, Va.

In the last few years, this quiet, low-key singer of mountain ballads and death-haunted songs, who still lives near the spot where he was born in a tucked-away corner close to the rugged Virginia-Tennessee border, has been showing up in the most unlikely places. He was the subject of lengthy profiles in the New Yorker and in the rock ‘n’ roll monthly, Spin Magazine. He was the star of a D.A. Pennebaker documentary, “Down from the Mountain,” as well as a concert tour by the same name. He appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman” and “The Tonight Show,” and was finally inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, which somehow had overlooked the man who many consider to be the greatest living singer of traditional American music.

One of the patriarchs of traditional and bluegrass music – “old-time mountain music” is the term he prefers – Stanley, who performs with his group, the Clinch Mountain Boys, this Sunday at the Mahaiwe Theatre at 7, still plays over 100 concerts a year. “I used to get scared to death on stage, but in the last few years I don’t pay attention to it,” he said.

Stanley has basically been on the road since 1946 when he and his brother, Carter Stanley, first formed a band in the brother-duo style then popular.

“I guess it was just a gift for us,” said Stanley. “We liked it and we used it. The first show we ever played after we went on a radio station, we packed the house. That’s the way it happened. We knew it right from the start.

“The Lord gives everybody a gift – he gives some a gift to sing, some to preach, some to work on a car. He gives everyone a talent.”

Stanley’s talent is singing haunting songs of death, murder, sin and redemption – numbers like “Are You Afraid to Die?,” “When I Wake Up to Sleep No More,” and “My Sinful Past.” Many of his songs have become modern standards, and not only in their original language – “O Death” has even been translated into Yiddish, rendered as “Malekh ha-Moves,” by famed lyricist Michael Wex.

“Nothing like that in the songs ever happened to me,” he said. “It’s just the way I feel it if it did happen. I try to make it feel like if it did happen how I’d talk it or sing it.”

Stanley’s influence is felt far and wide throughout modern music. His songs bookend the career of Bob Dylan, who recorded a version of Stanley’s signature number, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” on his very first album, then recorded a version of “Rank Strangers” in the mid-‘80s, and continues singing Stanley numbers like “I Am the Man, Thomas” and “Searching for a Soldier’s Grave” in concert.

“I feel honored that he likes my songs and my sound,” said Stanley. “He told me that when he recorded with me that it was one of the highlights of his life. That made me feel good. Bob Dylan is a very fine man and has the talent.”

The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, as well as folk singers like Joan Baez and country stars like Dwight Yoakam, Vince Gill, Hal Ketchum and Patty Loveless, all credit Stanley as a primary inspiration.

Like Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys before him, Stanley’s band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, has been an incubator for several generations of country and bluegrass superstars, including Ricky Skaggs, Larry Sparks, Charlie Sizemore and the late Keith Whitley.

Stanley’s work as a banjo player is only slightly less celebrated than that of Earl Scruggs, but ultimately it is Stanley’s voice – impossibly raw and yearning, even described as scary by some – that continues to enthrall listeners. “O Brother” producer T-Bone Burnett showcased Stanley’s voice on last year’s album, “Ralph Stanley,” the first one released solely under his name.

A collection of songs mostly dating back to the early 20th-century, but at least one, the chilling revenge ballad, “Mathie Grove,” going at least as far back as Shakespearean times, the album highlights Stanley’s timeless vocals. His is the voice of hundreds of years of pain, anguish and heartache, mixed with a dollop of faith and a pint of resilience that as much as any other incarnates the American spirit.

“It’s just doing it from the heart, keeping the same style so people will know who you are, and not playing above people’s heads, and doing it from the roots,” said Stanley.

Also on Sunday night’s bill is singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale, who collaborated with Stanley on last year’s “Lost in the Lonesome Pines,” which won the Grammy Award for best bluegrass album. “Jim is a good singer and we phrase good together,” said Stanley. “His style is a little different from mine but I like it -- it’s still down-to-earth music.”

The Hunger Mountain Boys, a local country/bluegrass duo, will warm up the crowd at the Mahaiwe and host a bluegrass session at Club Helsinki, which is presenting the Mahaiwe concert, following the show.

For tickets call 528-3394.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 29, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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