PUBLICATION: The Roanoke Times
Ralph Stanley takes a plastic vial from his grandson, Nathan, turns it toward the living room ceiling, and gulps down a shot of imaginary medicine.
"Thank you, honey," he says, and hands the vial back to the 4-year-old who listens to his pappaw's rib cage with an orange stethoscope.
Stanley, a bluegrass tenor, has had bronchitis all week, has been to a real doctor twice. He has a festival and a three-day recording session coming up, so he's staying out of the May wind that hurries across his land like it's late to Sunday dinner and the biscuits are getting cold.
Usually on days like this, when bronchitis is a springtime memory, "I go out in the fields and walk," Stanley says. "Work on the truck and just gin around - that's what the old-timers call it."
While Stanley may have spent enough time in the hills of Dickenson County to qualify as an old-timer, doctors told him during a recent checkup that he looked good. "They said I'm about a 25-year-old in arteries and veins."
In a world that honored the late Bill Monroe as the father of old-timebluegrass music, "I guess I'm the elder statesman," says Stanley, 70. "I was second, after Bill Monroe, to start this kind of music."
Last year, he celebrated his 50th anniversary in bluegrass with a trip to Nashville, where the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame gave him a party and televised the honors.
Clinch Mountain Boys past and present were there, and other friends."I tell you, I think I'm pretty well used to it," Stanley says of the spotlight. "Nothing excites me in music as far as stage fright goes."
He does not know how many shows he has performed over the years, how many times he has strummed his banjo or sung old hymns a cappella before a reverent crowd. ``That's like how many miles have I traveled. I wish I'd put a speedometer on me in '46.''
Oct. 16, 1946. That's the first time Stanley hit the radio airwaves with his brother, Carter, who died 30 years ago, some say after years of hard living. Stanley says definitively: Carter died of cancer.
The brothers went from WNVA in Norton to WCYB in Bristol, where their show, "Farm & Fun Time," aired from 12:05 to 1 p.m. Stanley doesn't do much with live radio anymore. When he does, it's usually before his Memorial Day weekend music festival, and he just says a few words before the disc jockey slaps on a record.
But he performs 100 to 110 times a year. "I don't do a full schedule because I want to keep on doing as long as I can," he says. "I can't wear myself out."
He has always been in high demand for festivals, and the demand increased after Monroe's death last year.
``I think a lot of Bill's fans moved over to me,'' says Stanley, who sang ``Rank Stranger'' at Monroe's funeral. Stanley doesn't like to talk about the early years, when Monroe believed the Stanley Brothers' music was too close to his own. ``For the last 35 or 40 years, he has been our best friend.''
Stanley no longer lectures (``I don't think I'm a very good talker anyway") though he did at one time. That was at Lincoln Memorial University, which gave him the honorary doctorate he uses in his title - Dr. Ralph Stanley - causing some folks to mistake him for a veterinarian. He'd toyed with the idea of animal medicine or farming, and he still keeps 30 head of cattle on the farm &emdash; Limousin and Angus.
Their lowing is no match for the harmonies Stanley has created over the years, first with his brother and now with his son, Ralph Stanley II, the band's rhythm guitarist and lead singer.
Stanley's voice, says Joe Wilson, director of the National Council of Traditional Arts in Maryland ``is a bridge between the hollers and the cities. He helped show the beauty that's around us, and the vitality and force of the old way of singing.''
Stanley gazes out the picture window of his stone house atop McClure's Sandy Ridge.
If words cost money, he would've saved a bundle by now.
He seems more comfortable talking about his children than himself, about his grandson's potential music career rather than his own, which is more than 150 albums strong.
``That there's my tenor,'' he says of Nathan. ``A tenor and a banjo player.''
He recalls Ralph II's album debut, at 31/2, singing "How Far to Little Rock."
``There's a line in it `I ain't lost,' and he sang it `I ain't wost,' so that's what I call it,'' Ralph Stanley says.
Ralph II is now 18, his father brags, ``doing a man's job,'' as he has been for two years since he started home schooling to earn his high school diploma.
"He wanted it," Ralph Stanley says. "He likes his old-time music."
He worked for it, too.
``Sometimes it was hard, especially when I was younger, being who I was,'' recalls Ralph II. "A lot of people expected a lot of me. But now I feel like I've done something. I've got a long ways to go yet, but I
work hard. This is all I know to do. It's all I've seen all my life."
Over the years, there have been some greats in this band, Ralph Stanley II says. "There's one great still in it, and that's him in there." He nods toward the kitchen, where his dad is talking to a car salesman about a trade in. He stops talking. "I'm choked up."
Ralph Stanley II says he wasn't pushed to learn guitar; he wanted to play it, the way he wanted to harmonize with his dad's lonesome tenor, to keep it company.
``He works you and trains you,'' Ralph Stanley II says. ``With a tenor singing, you don't lead the chorus, he leads you. Any time he wants to throw you off and make you go flat, he can. His voice is that powerful.''
Ralph II's mother, Jimmi, can sing, too, so perhaps he comes by some of his talent naturally. But only some of it. ``I believe talent is a little fire inside you,'' Ralph II says. ``You've got to find it and learn how to build it, how to keep it going with desire and determination. I think that's talent.''
If that's the case, there is something ablaze in the soul of Ralph Stanley II. And in his father, there is a forest fire.
"Ralph Stanley is a defining force in bluegrass,'' says Wilson with theCouncil of Traditional Arts. ``Ralph's one of my heroes. If you think about it, Ralph's been influential for half a century. And only a handful of artists have influence that reaches that far in time.''
It's a vocal thing.
``He had country soul in his voice before country or soul was cool," Wilson says.
He also has raw emotion, ``and it's there for a reason,'' says Wilson, who grew up listening to the Stanley Brothers in nearby Trade, Tenn. ``Country people who can't afford headshrinkers need outlets for their pain and their feelings. I'd rather have Ralph Stanley on my case than some disciple of Sigmund Freud or someone ... with a Prozac solution.''
In this part of the country, where railroad tracks knit the mountains together, towns and communities may just as well be measured by car lengths as miles.
At the entrance to McClure, a wooden marker in front of a convenience storeheralds this as the hometown of Dr. Ralph Stanley, Carter Stanley and the Stanley Brothers.
The longtime Clinch Mountain Boys have posed in front of this sign for pictures - Curly Ray Cline, before he went into a nursing home, and Jack Cooke, who is still playing with Stanley after 27 years and six months.
Stanley's home, too, is understated, a light stone house at the end of a long driveway with a red mailbox marked simply ``Ralph Stanley.'' He has lived here since 1974 with Jimmi, who is out running errands just now and getting her hair done.
The living room is a menagerie of toys: three polar bears and a giraffe with an ailing neck are currently in grandson Nathan's good graces.
"I can lift it up, look!" he says, clutching the largest polar bear.
"Yeah, boy, I tell you," Stanley replies.
Jimmy Martin, also known as "The King of Bluegrass," says he has always enjoyed the down-home feeling of this place, which is stocked with family pictures and handmade potholders and drinking glasses commemorating Disney's "Pocahontas."
"Ralph and Carter were raised poor, like I was," he says. "When I play upthere, Ralph always talks to me about what's happening, about his mother and his dad and Carter and the graveyard. He's always been so nice to me, to just say `howdy.' He will always be the greatest friend in bluegrass music that I have."
Though Stanley moved away to Florida for a time, he has remained committed to this part of the country. When he returned in the 1970s, he tried his hand in politics, running for commissioner of revenue and Circuit Court clerk. Helost. But he was appointed to the county School Board in 1992, where he served four years.
"Politics are pretty intense in this county," says Damon Rasnick, former Democratic Party chairman and a former member of the Board of Supervisors. Running for office "is a pretty popular thing to do. ... In my opinion, Ralph really had a desire to serve."
In the early 1980s, Stanley held several political fund-raisers for Rep.Rick Boucher, D-Abingdon, when the lawyer was first running for Congress.
"He was enormously helpful to me," Boucher recalls. At the fund-raisers "he played and people mostly were there to see him but the benefits went to my campaign. ... We've had a long-standing friendship. He's a good-will ambassador - not just for the United States, but for Southwest Virginia."
Over the years, Stanley has received his share of prestigious awards - from heritage foundations, bluegrass, country and old-time music associations.
His only Grammy is from his three children, Lisa, Tonya and Ralph II, a trophy etched to say: "Our Grammy to you, we love you and are very proud of you."
He was finally nominated for his first Grammys four years ago for his "Saturday Night & Sunday Morning," a double CD that included Dwight Yoakam, Alison Krauss and others who plucked their inspiration from Stanley's 1926 Gibson. (There is no need to make a list of those in bluegrass and country music who have been inspired by the Stanley Brothers, Wilson says, ``because it includes just about everybody.'')
Stanley recently started setting up a recording schedule in Nashville for a similar CD, this one to be released on Roanoke's Rebel Records. Rebel has released 29 of Stanley's 150 or so albums, not counting the "50th Anniversary Collection." which came out last year. Stanley's 30th project for Rebel, a gospel album titled "My All and All," will be out next week.
Stanley says he's talked with the likes of Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart (both former Clinch Mountain Boys), Patty Loveless and Vince Gill about joining him on his next CD. The results will depend on recording schedules.
"One I can tell you for sure is Bob Dylan," Stanley says. "He wanted to do it last time" but couldn't schedule the studio time.
The artists will choose which of Stanley's songs they want to perform and will harmonize along with Stanley. The Clinch Mountain Boys will play the music.
"Of course I'm familiar with the songs we do, so it takes just a few minutes and I'm right back on it," Stanley says.
The CD, unnamed as of yet, will likely come out in early fall.
The road to Ralph Stanley's old homeplace atop Smith Ridge twists like a stubborn garden hose.
Stanley turns the wheel of his van around a sharp curve and looks back over his shoulder.
"Are ya scared?"
He is not. He knows these roads so well, "I can drive out here in eight inches of snow, blindfolded."
Nathan leans over from the passenger seat to touch his pappaw's muscle.
It was on Decoration Day, or Memorial Day, 27 years ago that Stanley held his first music festival here.
It was a way to honor brother Carter, he says, "sort of a remembrance to him."
This year's festival starts today and continues Friday and Saturday.
Musicians play on an outdoor stage and, nearby, in the family cemetery, Stanley rigs up a speaker and plays tapes day and night.
Martin remembers the first year he did that. ```Little White Dove' and all of them songs - with the speakers, it sounded like it was coming right out of the grave,'' he says.
Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys will play all three days of the festival. Other acts will include Martin, the Sullivan Family, the Old Dominion Cloggers, and the Bluegrass Strangers.
By the time things get started, the stage will have a new coat of paint and an audience of a few thousand people will replace the neatly stacked bales of hay.
"Festivals, they were the savior for bluegrass music," Stanley says. "They gave bluegrass bands a place to play."
The first-ever bluegrass festival was held in Fincastle. Monroe played, and Martin, Don Reno and the Stanley Brothers played, too/ Before that, bluegrass musicians were relegated to drive-ins, elementaryand high schools and small theaters. Stanley still plays all of those places. Except for that drive-in part.
He conducts his tour of the old homeplace - just over the hill from his own home - from the van.
"I come out every 10 days or so, just to look around where I was raised," he says.
This place atop Smith Ridge is where his mother grew up. She was the one who taught him to play the banjo.
She's buried near the top of the ridge in a vault next to Carter and his wife. Her own parents are buried here, too, under these words from an old Stanley Brothers song: ``Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain.'' (Stanley's father, a singer who separated from his mother when Stanley was 14, is buried elsewhere.)
On the other side of Lucy Jane's vault are two more, empty, for Jimmi and Ralph, marked with their names and birth dates. A banjo is engraved in the stone marking Stanley's grave; a guitar mark's his brother's.
``I've already got my place ready,'' Stanley says.
His song "Hills of Home" is about this spot. He speaks the lyrics, and even without his ghostly tenor, the words are powerful:
``Carter, this is your song.
That was your request.
You are at rest now
In the hills you so often wrote about and loved so well...
Someday this Earth, I'll no longer roam
And we will be together once again, side by side, in the
hills of home.''
To get to the festival: from Coeburn, take Virginia 72 north about one mile, turn right on Virginia 652 and go six miles. Turn left on Virginia 643 and follow signs to festival.
Back to the index.