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Life is all about choices, and Ralph Stanley's first big choice was between a pig and a banjo.
At the tender age of 11, Ralph's mother gave him a $5 bill--no small sum in 1938, especially in the hills of Virginia near the Tennessee border where the Stanleys lived (to help visualize the setting, think The Waltons; TV's favorite Depression-era family called the area home). Young Ralph could spend the money on either a thing that went oink or a thing that went plunk; he chose the latter.
Had he opted for the bacon-to-be, the world probably never would have heard of the Stanley Brothers, would have missed out on the siblings' soaring Appalachian harmonies, would have been denied one of the founding outfits of the deeply rooted music that came to be called bluegrass.
Stanley did, of course, drop the bill on a five-string banjo, and--with older brother Carter on guitar and vocals--he went on to bring the sounds of Clinch Mountain to the world. Which sounds pretty impressive to anyone but Ralph. He's the quiet type, not given to lengthy revelations or self-aggrandizing reminiscences. Ralph Stanley's Clint Eastwood-meets-Tonto demeanor seems natural for a Virginia boy from the hills, a place where niceties can constitute a complete conversation. And it's not like people pay the man to talk, anyway.
To hear Stanley sing and play is to gain information enough, though he did neither over the long-distance line from his home in Dickenson County, Virginia (located on the land he grew up on). Ask him why he chose an instrument over an animal, what started him playing a relatively obscure strain of music, why he picked the career that will be 50 years old in 12 months and there is silence. You can almost imagine the wizened squint into space, the rubbing of the chin. Then the answer: "I don't know--just listening to other music on the radio, I guess."
Most people's knowledge of bluegrass music goes no further than the inbred banjo prodigy speed-plucking "Dueling Banjos" in the film Deliverance, or The Beverly Hillbillies theme. Yet the music has been wildly popular in little pockets of the country for some six decades.
In the Thirties and Forties, country-music radio was in its golden era, and there was plenty for a kid like Ralph to soak up. Large stations had what were called "clear" channels, and broadcast over huge portions of the country. Sears, Roebuck founded a station in Chicago, WLS ("World's Largest Store"), which hosted a show titled The National Barn Dance. In Nashville, the National Life and Accident Insurance Company's station, WSM ("We Shield Millions"), had its own little program named Grand Ole Opry. Stanley grew up with an ear cocked to seminal groups like Mainer's Mountaineers, the Carter Family and the Monroe Brothers.
It was the Monroes who carved out the path that Stanley would follow. After the Monroe Brothers split up in 1938, Bill Monroe went on to form his own band, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, which became a regular on the Opry with featured players Lester Flatt on guitar and Earl Scruggs on banjo. By 1946, the Bluegrass Boys were stars on the Opry, had recorded their first record for Columbia and were packing them in at shows around the country. It was about this time that Ralph and his brother Carter began playing professionally as the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys.
"We started playing in 1946," says Ralph Stanley with a soft twang. "Of course, we played on several different jamborees like [the ones in] Wheeling, West Virginia; Shreveport, Louisiana; Richmond, Virginia; places like that. We played some at the Opry. We did some television and radio. Most of it was played in Bristol, Tennessee."
In December of that year, radio station WCYB went on the air. It wasn't nearly as big as the giants, but its signal carried throughout the bluegrass roots country of Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky. The brothers were given their own show, and began making a name for themselves playing music that was very similar in style to Bill Monroe's--a fact not lost on Monroe. He knew that his audience was limited, and guarded his turf fiercely; the Stanleys were working his side of the hill. When Columbia Records announced its intention to sign the Stanleys, Monroe left the label. Stanley laconically shrugs off the bad vibes between the two 'grass superpowers.
"Well, Bill wasn't used to anyone else, I guess," Stanley says. "I've heard that he was sort of that way. We patched that up long years ago. I play with Bill a lot. I've recorded with him and he's recorded with me."
The Stanley Brothers stayed on at WCYB for 12 years before deciding in 1958 that they had played out the Bristol area. They pulled up stakes, moved to Florida and began hosting weekly television and radio shows. Sponsored by a construction company named the Jim Walter Corporation, the broadcasts were the kind of thing you would imagine the folks in Mayberry tuning in to on a hot summer night. They featured 30 minutes of the Stanleys and the Clinch Mountain Boys playing old and new songs, and opened every week with emcee Carter giving the sponsor's pitch over instrumental backing: