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Country

Sin salvation

Song traditionalist Ralph Stanley gets his due, finally.

Photo/courtesy Sony/Legacy
Stanley: A man and his banjo.
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Published 1/28/2004

Oh death,
Won’t you spare me over till another year?
Well what is this that I can’t see,
With ice cold hands taking hold of me?
Well I am death, none can excel,
I’ll open the door to heaven or hell.
I’ll fix your feet till you can’t walk.
I’ll lock your jaw till you can’t talk.
I’ll close your eyes so you can’t see,
This very hour come and go with me,
In death I come to take the soul,
Leave the body and leave it cold
To drop the flesh off of the frame.
The earth and worms both have a claim.
Oh death,
Oh death,
Won’t you spare me over till another year?

—Traditional

 

Someday Dr. Ralph Stanley will cross over. Someday the plaintive wail that rises from his throat like spectral Appalachian mist will be silenced. Someday the flesh will drop from his frame and the earth and worms will claim him. Someday he will feel the ice cold hands take hold of him.

When it happens, we will lose one of the last apostles of the most distinctly American music and find, in his absence, a yawning chasm between the present and the past. That divide will not only separate us from the authentic traditions of Appalachian bluegrass, it will also estrange us from the ancient emotional recipes that created it, from times when hardship was the universal currency of everyday life and song was more often than not a prayer for salvation.

Born in the earliest months of 1927, Stanley was raised in a remote area on the mountainous Tennessee-Virginia border in a little town called Stratton. As a child, his father would sing traditional regional tunes while his mother accompanied him by clawhammering a banjo — a technique that is a pick-and-strum blur with roots in plantation folk music. While his older brother Carter proved to be something of a string instrument prodigy, Ralph learned the banjo from his mom. The fraternal duo started by playing regional parties and churches as teenagers. But it wasn’t until the mid-1940s, when they stood around the tin can microphone at a radio station in Bristol, Virginia, that the Stanley Brothers initiated their great impact on country music.

During a time when mass-marketed country music was unheard of, the Stanley Brothers quickly developed a strong following because of the unique flavor of their craft. Where other early country innovators were known for more rambunctious, yodeling revelry, the Stanley Brothers sang unadorned songs of untimely death and religious fervor, of lost souls and found salvation. The series of watershed recordings they produced from 1949 until 1952 were among the first popular country records … ever.

Between their first recordings in the mid-’40s and 1966, when Carter died, the Stanley Brothers and their backing band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, were among the most celebrated bluegrass groups in the world, ultimately rivaling the popularity of luminaries like Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and the Osborne Brothers.

The Stanley Brothers’ made their mark with stormy messages of Old Testament apocalypse and by bridging the gap between the stomp-gospel of the hills and the secular folk storytelling of popular music.

But it was the voice, Ralph Stanley’s unmistakable instrument of expression, which became the signature of the Stanley Brothers’ popularity. Its emotional urgency is rooted in the hills of Stanley’s birth, a warning siren that begs humanity to leave its sinful days behind and take up the cross. Today, six decades after he sketched the blueprints for American bluegrass, it’s a voice that remains an instrument of the mossy soil and cold riverbeds of the rural Virginia hills. It is an instrument of God.

“I know that I’m blessed and I’m thankful,” Stanley says, via phone from his home. Stanley still lives near the rugged spot where he was born. With its rough texture and thick drawl, his speaking voice bears a faint echo of his seminal wail. “I was singing these songs long before they named it bluegrass. They were passed on to me and I’m glad I can pass ’em on. I know that a lot of people make something out of my voice, but I just sing with what I was given.”

And while hardcore fans of folk, bluegrass and country music have known of Stanley’s titanic influence on American music, a decade ago it looked as if he would never enjoy the proper credit he was due. Until 2000 — when sound track mastermind T-Bone Burnett began assembling music for O Brother, Where Art Thou? and included Stanley on what would become the best-selling country record … ever. Platinum many times over (selling, to date, more than 5 million copies), the sound track remained at the top of the country charts for more than two years.

Stanley himself pulled in Grammys for Best Country Male Vocalist (beating out Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Tim McGraw and [ahem] Ryan Adams) and Album of the Year, for his involvement with O Brother. He also took in awards from the Country Music Association and returned to a major label, Columbia. Stanley was chosen to be the closing act for the 2002 Down From The Mountain Tour, a sold-out concert series that spread the traditionalist gospel of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? craze.

“A lot of people have never really taken the time to really listen to this music, but the movie, that O Brother, got a lot of people’s attention,” Stanley says. “I never thought I’d see it, where bluegrass music is right on top, like it is now. It’s just a good, down-to-earth music. A lot of the older people have enjoyed it through the years, and they’ve passed it on down to their children. That’s kind of what I do. And once you have it, it’s over. It like a guest in your house that never leaves, you know? It sticks with you and stays inside of you.”

The unprecedented popularity of the O Brother sound track supports this statement. And in addition to the a cappella hymn “Oh Death” — a tune that plays during O Brother’s disturbing lynching scene — the sound track’s upbeat anthem, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” was an early hit of Ralph and Carter Stanley. Before Generation Y was gobbling up copies of the sound track at Best Buy, Stanley had been performing the tune for more than half a century.

“Carter and me arranged ‘Man of Constant Sorrow,’ sitting in the living room of our parents’ home. I’ve been singin’ it myself for about the last 55 years,” Stanley says with a disbelieving tone. “But the first I heard of that song was when my father sung it with my mother. Things aren’t really passed like that anymore, but when I play it now it feels good to have a younger generation hearing it. After that, Carter and me arranged it pretty much like you hear it all over today. I think Carter would have liked to see so many people singing it along with me when we do it now. People seem to like it wherever we go, so, in a different way I’m passing it on like my father did to me.”

He’s right, it is kind of the same. But Stanley is more of the father of a movement. Though his many accomplishments and historical influence ensure his current popularity is far from being a fad, he’s reveling in the young faces.

“This music is a gift that I’m passing along [to] a whole lot of new listeners,” Stanley says. “And I know that they will pass it along. That is how the music has always been handed down. It’s like passin’ a torch.”

But who will take the torch when it comes time for Stanley’s passing? After the death of Bill Monroe in 1996, Stanley could be seen as the last of his kind, one of the remaining witnesses to the seminal creation of traditional country music. Stanley feigns no interest in the changed definition of country that saturates the radio waves; he resolutely stands by his craft as country music’s truest form. “It’s the only music that I’ve ever cared to play and the only thing that I will ever care to hear,” he says firmly. “If you never heard it you ain’t hurting nobody but yourself. And it don’t bother me a bit, because if people can’t get this music on the radio, why, they’ll come out to see me in person to hear it. But before I go I want to give this music to everyone that is willing to listen.”

The gruff, energetic determination in his voice is assurance that he intends to give until he can give no more. He is determined to fix the feet and lock the jaw of death for a few more years so he can continue to spread the word. And if we can take anything from this latest bright flash in Stanley’s historically influential career, let it be his indomitable desire to pass along these gifts — these stories, these melodies, this spirit — that were once passed down to him. Spare him till another year.

 

Ralph Stanley will perform Saturday, Jan. 31, at Hill Auditorium (825 N. University, Ann Arbor) with Emmylou Harris and the Old Crow Medicine Show. For info call 734-763-8587.

Nate Cavalieri is a freelance writer. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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