When Ralph Stanley passes on to his eternal reward America will lose a national treasure, though most music consumers in this country are tragically ignorant or indifferent to his importance. He is the last living original apostle of bluegrass; moreover, he is the vital link between that relatively new idiom (invented in the early ‘40s) and old-time music. From Ralph Stanley one can draw a direct line through the old-time duo of Grayson & Whitter (“Handsome Molly”, “Short Life of Trouble”) to the purest strains of Anglo-Irish string music. Since his brother Carter’s death in 1966, Stanley has gradually deconstructed bluegrass, mining for a sound that is simpler, purer, and yes, even more transcendent.
Ralph Stanley is an Anglo-American who plays an African-American instrument. The banjo (rightly called “banjer” by hillbillies; the African word is banjar) was introduced into southern Appalachia by blacks in the nineteenth century. They also brought the first flat-top guitars into the region after the advent of rail lines. Though geographically Southern, white mountineers were poor and disaffected by the politics of the wealthy planters of the Deep South. Strong pockets of pro-Union sentiment existed in the mountains, with a guarded willingness to embrace elements of a different but equally repressed culture. The banjo quickly took its place alongside the fiddle as a definitive mountain instrument. Novelties such as the lap dulcimer, mandolin, and Dobro came along later, and to this day are eschewed by some purists. Early on Stanley mastered Earl Scruggs’ famous three finger roll. But while Bela Fleck took that form into interstellar overdrive, Stanley reverted to the primitive and percussive clawhammer method. On Man of Constant Sorrow one can hear this technique on the hard-driving standards “Rocky Island” and “Little Birdie”.
The song structures on this album are stripped bare and rendered simple enough for an unschooled novice to strum along with. The title track, which has gained fresh exposure via the latest Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou, is a basic C-F-G progression in natural tuning. What empowers this song, however, is Stanley’s distinctive howling, slightly off-key, banshee vocals. The initial effect is that of a man yelling across a pasture to a distant neighbor. Subsequent hearings yield deeper insights. Stanley’s voice mimics the features of ancient Anglo-Irish pipes and whistles, with intonation at mid-syllable. When Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys harmonize, the voices rise on stressed vowels with ending consonants muted or dropped. It isn’t 12-bar blues, but the effect is every bit if not more hair-raising.
Having reached back in time, Stanley has tapped into something bigger than himself, making his music relevant beyond his isolated culture. He sings about trouble, longing, death, and home with a passion and verve that is unequaled. This is especially evident on “Oh Death” (which includes an ironic lead vocal by the late Keith Whitley) and the heart-rending “Calling My Children Home”. The latter dispenses with instrumentation in a baring of soul so moving it demands listeners to stay back some distance with heads bowed. Ralph Stanley’s music has always treaded each valley of grief with dignity while looking over the next ridge with hope.
In his long life, Ralph Stanley has quietly outlived the rise and fall of many a musical phenomenon: bebop, the Beatles, fusion, psychedelia, progressive bluegrass, disco, grunge, young country…you name it. Bordering on virtual anonymity, Stanley has been the humble personification of an antique style closest to the heart of rural America—one that will defiantly endure after he is gone. Long after the noise of Marilyn Manson and Eminem is bagged up and tossed into the dumpster of transient pop, Ralph Stanley’s legacy—yea, his legend—will continue beyond his years.
A complete catalog of Ralph Stanley’s recorded work, including Man of Constant Sorrow can be found at www.rebelrecords.com.
// Notes from the Road
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