I once opened for Ralph Stanley somewhere north of Cincinnati in a pre-fabricated building with one of those signs out front where you can change the letters by hand. It said, “Tonite Ralph Stanley,” and that was about all it needed to say.
As the song said, “The joint was jumping.” It was packed wall-to-wall with country people dressed up like city people in serge pants and old tweed sports coats and city guys dressed in tight blue-jeans, $100 Nikes and aviator glasses.
When Ralph and the Clinch Mountain Boys took the stage, there was an uproar. “Stone Walls and Steel Bars,” somebody yelled. "Rabbit in a Log!" "Clinch Mountain Backstop!" Ralph looked flinty, with a chiseled face straight out of southeastern “Virginny” where he was born and still lives.
By the end of the night, his banjo was cracking and Curly Ray Cline was on the fiddle and the flat-picked lead guitar wound ’round it all like sculpture, transporting the club and its inhabitants to a lonesome holler in East Kentucky. I could swear I heard hounds giving tongue on a full-moon night in a place no longer of this world.
To hear Ralph sing “Little Maggie” or “Pretty Polly” is to understand the heart of darkness. “The Fields Have Turned Brown” is surely the depths of despair, and “The Kitten and the Cat” is a song I still don’t understand. It’s a playful tune that states in effect, “I’ll be gone when the kitten starts totin’ the cat.” If you want an idiomatic expression, it’s hard to beat Ralph Stanley.
Now, after over 40 years of playing small radio stations, bluegrass festivals, schoolhouses and country music parks, Ralph has come into his own. His movie appearance in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen Brothers dark take on the Homeric legends, made him a household name.
About half-way through the movie, a masked Ku Klux Klan Grand Master appears at a rally, his face covered in a red satin mask, and out of his mouth comes Ralph’s unmistakable mournful song, “O, Death!” which he sings a capella. It will raise the hair on the back of your head.
When I started my DJ career at WNKU-FM in November 1989, I made sure the library had a lot of Ralph Stanley records. We had the Stanley Brothers, who recorded in Cincinnati a lot in the late 1950s and early ’60s at King Records, and then we had Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys.
Back in 1989, the small record labels hadn’t quite picked up on CDs. Their collective wisdom was to stay with vinyl and the eight-track tapes most performers sold off of portable card tables after their performances at bluegrass festivals.
I had a listener then named Virginia Creech, who would call each and every week and request the Stanley Brothers recording of “Rank Strangers,” a song bleak and dark in its worldview. It’s hard to imagine how popular it was and remains to this day. Virginia didn’t particularly like the song, she told me one week in her harsh, gruff voice, but “it makes my birds sing.”
So every week I had to search through 33 Stanley Brothers albums to find just the right version of “Rank Strangers.” Sometimes I had to go back again and find “How Far to Little Rock?,” which incidentally the Stanley Brothers recorded at King Records back in 1960.
A man who was a permanent resident of Drake Hospital used to request that song, and since he was so sick I’d faithfully search through all those records, also finding “Mother’s Not Dead, She’s Only a’Sleepin’” and “Papa Don’t Whip Little Ben” – the whole Stanley oevre, you might say.
Ralph Stanley started playing music in the 1940s about the same time as Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Bill Monroe and Doc Watson. If you subscribe to the Big Bang theory, here is proof of it, for Stanley, Scruggs and Watson are all about the same age.
All of them grew up within 50 miles of each other, roughly, in a part of the country bluegrass lovers call the “Fertile Crescent,” where the Clinch Mountains run through North Carolina, east Tennessee and eastern Kentucky. As those artists became popular, small record labels and tiny recording studios (a lot like Pappy Daniels’ radio station in O, Brother) sprang up like spring flowers.
WPFB in Middletown was to become one of the important country radio stations. WCYB in Bristol was another.
WCYB was the first of these small stations to hire a new duet: Carter Stanley, guitar and lead singer, and his younger brother Ralph, who played an old-timey banjo style he learned from his mother in Dickenson County, Va. They were both young war veterans, and they admired both Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs.
The Stanley Brothers learned how to work the system quickly, according to Neil Rosenberg’s definitive book, Bluegrass History. They’d give the radio stations 10 to 15 percent of their show dates (receipts) to be on the station.
The Stanley Brothers were hot. They played ball parks, drive-in movie theaters, country music parks, schoolhouses and in 1947 made their first record for Rich-R-Tone.
The Stanleys recorded for all of the new small record companies like King and Star-Day in Cincinnati, Lemco and County records in Lexington and eventually Rebel Records, where Ralph stayed for many years.
They might start a tour at WCBY in Bristol, then go to schoolhouses in eastern Kentucky or a drive-in theater in Lexington and finally head to the Ken-Mill in Cincinnati or bars in Middletown, Dayton or Detroit. They had fan clubs in every city.
I once heard a bluegrass aficionado say that Ralph Stanley and Larry Sparks owned eastern Kentucky. A record distributor, Carl Sauceman, told Rosenberg, “We could sell 5,000 Stanley Brothers in Kentucky and absolutely not give one away in Georgia. People tied a banjo and fiddle with Kentucky, with coal mining, with rural hillbillies, and they turned their noses down at it.”
Carter died in 1966 of liver disease, and for a while it seemed Ralph wouldn’t go on, but he found a youngster, 15-year-old Larry Sparks, who filled Carter’s shoes perfectly. The band was hot again.
At WNKU, I have two versions of “Next Sunday, Darlin’ Is My Birthday,” one with Larry Sparks and Ralph and the original recording with Carter and Ralph. They don’t sound exactly alike, but in pitch and style they’re so close you’d have to listen hard to tell them apart.
After Carter passed away, it was just a matter of keeping that good “Carter” sound alive as Ron Thomason of the Dry Branch Fire Squad called it. The way he put it, if somebody said they’d seen the Stanley Brothers at a festival, everyone wanted to know who played Carter. Was it Larry Sparks or the later Roy Lee Centers, Keith Whitley or Charlie Sizemore?
Ralph’s band was as much defined by who played Carter as it was by Ralph’s old-time “Shout Little Lula” banjo style – exuberant, rhythmic and sad at the same time.
I remember being at Beanblossom and the Lexington Festival of the Bluegrass back in the 1970s, partying all Saturday night with the likes of Sam Bush, Kenny Baker, John Hartford and the HotMud Family from Dayton. I remember waking up on Sunday morning to the gospel portion of the program. No matter how good I felt, I could hear Ralph singing “Over in the Gloryland” or “Children, Go” and I’d feel a profound sadness that Sunday morning could so easily neutralize Saturday night.
One dreary winter’s Saturday when I was still living above Kaldi’s in Over-the-Rhine, the owner, Dave, called me to come downstairs. When I got there, David Byrne of Talking Heads fame was sitting at the counter nursing a latte.
“Where can I find Ralph Stanley tonight?” he asked. I laughed, and he took offense.
“Why would you think it’s funny that I’d listen to Ralph Stanley?” he asked me curtly.
I didn’t know how to answer him. I felt like Ralph was a little raw for David Byrne, and I guess I felt a little protective toward both of them.
I got on the phone and found the place where Ralph was playing, secured David a seat in the audience and gave him instructions for getting there.
I’ll be going to see Ralph and the Clinch Mountain Boys myself this Sunday night at the Emery Theatre. I don’t need any directions, though. I know my way to them by heart.
RALPH STANLEY AND THE CLINCH MOUNTAIN BOYS close the 2008 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards at the Emery Theatre, 1112 Walnut St., with a 30-minute set. Note: The event is SOLD OUT, but a waiting list is being started for tickets to see Ralph Stanley perform. Get details here.