High and lonesome doesn’t even begin to cover it. When bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley left this world on June 23 after an extended battle with cancer, the man took with him a spirit and a sound that, though it may echo in a thousand lesser hands and voices, has no hope of being replaced.
Like the recently departed Merle Haggard, Prince, and David Bowie, Stanley’s small physical being contained a talent and drive that seemed beyond the merely human. Like some mythological Greek deity, entire universes of music routinely sprang from his head and fell to earth, impossibly strange gifts for us mere mortals.
Born in 1927 in Stratton, Virginia, Stanley and his guitar slinging brother, Carter, began blending the folk traditions of their home region and Carter Family-style harmonies into their duo the Stanley Brothers and their backing band the Clinch Mountain Boys, in the mid-’40s. Their 1951 recording of the traditional song “Man of Constant Sorrow” was both faster and harder-edged than the music of acknowledged “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe. Stanley’s wickedly-accelerated banjo style and high, rough-hewn voice helped take the musical genre of the mountains to new audiences.
To my ears, too much of today’s bluegrass music focuses on the dazzling technical expertise of its instrumentalists at the expense of songcraft. For all his fleet fingered skill on the banjo, “Dr” Ralph Stanley (as he was known to fans) never showboated, never tried to overwhelm audiences with 20 minute, blazing solos. His was a music of loose limbed rhythm, deep blue melody and voices intertwined like strands of mountain laurel.
All of those talents were still very much in evidence almost six decades later when I had the good fortune to catch Stanley in concert in 2008 at the Roanoke Rapids Theatre. Backed by a fine band that included his son, Ralph Stanley Jr. on rhythm guitar, and his grandson, Nathan, on mandolin, the 81-year-old tore through a lean set of originals and folk and gospel standards with the elan of a man half his age.
Dressed in an immaculately tailored western-style suit and white cowboy hat, Stanley also proved he still retained an impressively rude sense of humor. While encouraging the audience to show their appreciation for the band, he quipped, “Giving the band applause is like making love to an old maid — you can’t go overboard.”
Although the march of time had slowed his movements and robbed him of the ability to play his beloved banjo for extended periods, all eyes were on the Grand Ole Opry and Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor member as he stood at center stage and led the band on bluegrass touchstones such as “I Saw the Light,” “Man of Constant Sorrow,” and a particularly moving version of “Angel Band.”
The audience that night was larger than one would have expected for an octogenarian performing songs older than most of their grandparents. But by that time Stanley wasn’t just another bluegrass performer — he was the guy who sang “O Death,” which earned him a Grammy in 2002 when it was included on the soundtrack of the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
As he had in the movie, he sang the song a cappella that night in Roanoke Rapids. With starkly unsentimental lyrics such as “I’ll fix your feet till you can’t walk, I’ll lock your jaw till you can’t talk, … Oh Death, won’t you spare me over for another day?” the song both pointed up Stanley’s courage at facing up to life’s inevitable finale and made one ponder just how much longer the good doctor would be with us to share his remarkable talents.
The diminutive legend seemed to catch a second wind during the last few songs of the show. Here’s what I wrote in my review of the concert the following day:
“Saving the best for last, the veteran performer kicked his voice into high gear, cutting through every instrument and harmony singer with his piercing mountain rasp on “Little Maggie” and closing the night with a sped up, punk rock-raw version of the Appalachian murder ballad “Pretty Polly” that left the audience’s younger members nodding in appreciation.”
I expect anyone who takes the time to discover Ralph Stanley will have the same reaction. Hopefully, today’s listeners can put aside any lingering prejudices about his song’s hillbilly, backwoods origins and simply hear them for what they are — soul music in excelsis.