Ralph Stanley

Mountain man

By Naila Francis

There’s a reason Ralph Stanley calls Coeburn, Va., home. Tucked away in this mountainous rural retreat of fewer than 3,000 people, only about six miles from where he was born and near the border of Tennessee, it is there the musician is most content.

“I like this country. I call it the sticks,” he says. “It’s way back in the country, down in the southwestern part of Virginia. I like the people here and I’ve always been able to get done all the work that I’ve wanted to and work right out of a home base and that’s not something too many people can say.”

And it is perhaps this ability to find peace in such simplicity and solitude that explains the enduring appeal of his music — and the quiet enthusiasm he has for his craft.

Stanley is not a man captivated by the glamour of success, by the easy materialism it invites and the life of excess that it celebrates.

But by no means is he a recluse.

At 77, the acclaimed bluegrass musician is on the road for at least 150 dates a year. Along with his band, The Clinch Mountain Boys, Stanley has been making music for more than four decades, and he’ll be the first to say that, despite his preference to stay out of the limelight, “I always went just as far as any others.”

Indeed, in recent years, Stanley — who comes to the Keswick Theatre Saturday for an evening of bluegrass music along with Peter Rowan and the Tony Rice Quartet, as well as The Seldom Scene — has been enjoying newfound popularity.

His contribution to the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack from the quirky Coen brothers’ hit about three escaped convicts in Depression-era Mississippi is largely responsible.

The film, starring George Clooney, exposed audiences to a music that had long been a favorite of the underground folk scene — the rootsy bluegrass, string-band tunes and traditional spirituals known simply to some as “old tyme” or “high lonesome” music.

The album, produced by the masterful T Bone Burnett, won five Grammy awards — one going to Stanley for album of the year for his contributions to the project and another for best male country vocal performance for his a cappella solo “O Death.”

It also created a new fan base for the unvarnished Americana sound.

“That soundtrack got the music out to so many people who had never heard about it,” says Stanley, his voice genial despite the reticence for which he’s known. “They learned to like it, and old fans — they liked it, too.”

The fervor at the time may have baffled critics and audiences alike, but Stanley was not surprised.

“So many bands and people have changed to try to get something that’s more popular and I’ve always stuck to the real thing and it’s original,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons why I’ve been around so long and I’m still making more fans than I’ve ever had before. I just do the stuff I started with long before it was called bluegrass and the only thing I’ve changed is I’ve tried to get better.

“If people like this type of music, they’re true to it. They believe in it and they feel like they’re getting some honest music. My music comes from the heart and it comes from way back — and reminds you of the early days. It’s pure and sincere and it’s just good stuff, good old-time music.”

The engaging sound has been recognized time and again. The honors include a Lifetime Achievement Award from the North American Folk Alliance; a Grammy for best bluegrass album, “Lost In The Lonesome Pines,” in 2002; several awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association; a “Living Legend” medal from the Library of Congress; and his induction into the Grand Ole Opry.

But while appreciative of the mounting accolades, Stanley remains humble.

“I never did crave stardom,” he says. “I just wanted to do good.”

And though he admits to of course having to make a living, it was this more selfless desire that slowly launched a career.

He and his older brother, Carter, formed the Stanley Brothers and The Clinch Mountain Boys in 1946.

“We inherited it here,” says Stanley of the Appalachian mountain music they performed. “I don’t know of another sound just like it. It’s natural; it wasn’t copied from anything else. It was just in us and we let it out.

“And at first, we did it a little to help people along, to help them face their struggles and trials, and then to let more people know more about the music.”

The band’s poignant, mournful sound, rooted in the pain and strife of remote Appalachia, quickly became one of the most celebrated. But when Carter died in 1966, Stanley was left feeling almost as hopeless as the music he made.

“(Carter) played a great big part in the Stanley Brothers,” he says. “I didn’t want to give up and I got thousands of phone calls and encouraging letters asking me to go on. But I didn’t know how I would do it by myself, and I knew there was either two ways I could go — go down or go up — and I’m thankful that I chose to keep going. I reckon it’s just the Lord’s blessed me.”

Today, his son, Ralph Stanley II, is part of his band, contributing both on vocals and rhythm guitar. The rest of the cast of The Clinch Mountain Boys includes Jack Cooke on bass, James A. Shelton on guitar, Steve Sparkman on banjo and John Rigsby on vocals and mandolin.

Their unusual, plaintive sound, however, is just one part of the formula for success.

“I’ll advise any of the newcomers to try their best to get a sound of their own, to always put on clean shows, sober shows (and to) dress well,” says Stanley. “You’ve got to live a little bit of a higher standard to stay in this as long as I have. Be honest with people. Meet ’em, shake hands with ’em. Don’t be above them, just be one of them.”

While he has plans to slowly cut back on his vigorous touring schedule, retirement is not imminent.

“I don’t ever want to really completely retire,” says Stanley, who has several albums slated for release next year. “I just plan on keeping things a bit old-fashioned, and that’s the best I can do.”

– The Intelligencer