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:
Hello, everybody everywhere
Your Jim Walter Show is on the air
For a home of your own, no more rent to pay
See Jim Walter right away.
The Stanleys pounded out a steady living in Florida. Carter Stanley's death at age 41 in 1966 left Ralph dealing with both the loss of a brother and his new role as a bandleader. Carter had always taken the role as the front man, singing most of the songs and doing all of the emceeing. It was rough going for the taciturn Ralph at first.
"I just dreaded it, and didn't know what to do about it," he admits. "I didn't know how I'd be accepted, but I was. All the old fans were behind me, and I've gained a lot of people along the way who'd never heard of the Stanley Brothers."
Carter's death also came at a pivotal time in the history of bluegrass. "Back when we first started, it wasn't called bluegrass," Stanley drawls. "It was raised right along with the country. Like with 'How Far to Little Rock' [a Stanley Brothers single from 1960]; we got on the country-music charts with that down to No. 8, and stayed on for several weeks. Now it's separated, you see. They didn't start calling it bluegrass until 1965, after Bill Monroe's band."
Stanley reorganized the band and came to grips with the bluegrass label. Both he and his brother had tried to avoid being pegged as a bluegrass act for fear of losing any future shots at the country charts. But bluegrass festivals began popping up around the country, and a younger, recently turned-on "newgrass" audience came out for Ralph's "old-timey" music. While the young folk--complete with long hair and the other kind of grass--came as a bit of a shock to the older players, it's highly possible that the careers of even proven stars like Stanley might have foundered without the festivals.
"Yeah, it was surprising," Stanley says, "but that's what bluegrass really needed. That really put a shot in the arm, and has helped build it ever since."
Today, Stanley doesn't have any trouble finding a place to play. Although sidelined with a broken leg for a time last year, the 68-year-old is lined up to play about 150 shows this year and about 200 in 1996, the 50th anniversary of his career in show biz.
Still, bluegrass tends to play second fiddle to what now passes for country music. Some clubs refuse to book bluegrass because you can't line-dance to it. Bluegrass, if it's played on the radio at all, is relegated to public radio or one-hour weekend shows on commercial country stations. Prime time is home to the rock/pop country of Brooks & Dunn and Lord Garth. For Stanley, a man who has never plugged in an instrument and who would fire any of his musicians who did, it's enough to raise an eyebrow.
"Country music now is a lot different than what it used to be," he says. "It's more of a rock music than what real country music is. I think somebody's sort of stepped out of line from what I call country music." But the countrified Top 40 pap from Nashville may provide another unexpected boost to Stanley by swelling the ranks of the bluegrass believers frustrated by the vanishing sense of tradition. Lloyd Anderson, one of the directors of the Arizona Bluegrass Association, gravitated to bluegrass about 12 years ago.
"Bluegrass goes back to the traditional roots of country music," Anderson says. "A lot of bluegrassers will tell you that the so-called modern-day country music has drifted away from [those] roots. The traditional bluegrass is more of an outgrowth from mountain music from the Smoky Mountains and the Carolinas. It's music about the home and family, along with the Sunday-go-to-meeting kind of gospel music." It's that sound that Stanley captured brilliantly on his 1992 release Saturday Night/Sunday Morning. The disc, featuring old-timers like Bill Monroe and "newcomers" like Emmylou Harris and Dwight Yoakam, sold more than 100,000 copies, easily besting any other bluegrass recording that year. Perhaps the attraction is the authentic simplicity of Stanley's music; it seems inseparable from the tough lives and poverty of the coal-country hill people who brought it down from the mountains. While the songs may whistle along at breakneck speeds, driven by buoyant standup bass and banjo, there is still a deep feeling of melancholy. A lot of the songs are about death, or about those eagerly awaiting transportation to the other side, as in "Sailing Home":
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The days are so sad, and the nights are so long
They seem like a year to me
Prepare me o Lord to sail on the ship
The ship that's sailing home.
Ralph Stanley is one of the people responsible for keeping the haunting, lonely sound of bluegrass alive for the past 50 years. But he is not fanning the flame out of some feeling of responsibility. He leaves that to the record collectors and the ethnomusicologists. This is no hobby. He plays his music because people still pay to come and listen. It's what he does, and if they keep coming, he'll keep playing.
"There's a good market for what I do," Stanley offers with slightly more energy than it takes to yawn, "and I'm still able to move around some."
Ralph Stanley is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, April 19, at the Rockin' Horse in Scottsdale. Showtime is 8 p.m.