Ralph Stanley: Long Road to the Mountaintop

Jim Herrington
by Dean King - Virginia - February/March 2013

With one of the most distinctive voices ever recorded and a worldwide following, the bluegrass legend still calls the Virginia hills home

The ridges are so high and steep where Ralph Stanley hails from, an old saw has it, that if you drove off the top of one you’d die of starvation before you hit bottom. One winter when he was a boy, there in the coal country of far-southwestern Virginia, the family milk cow’s tail froze off. They had no electricity, no indoor plumbing. Ralph and his brother, Carter, didn’t have to walk a mile to school—it was more than two, hoofing it through the woods at dawn and returning home after dark. Even before their father left them, chores started at 3:00 a.m. If anyone ever had a legitimate claim to singing mournful Appalachian ballads born out of hardship, it’s Ralph Stanley.

The long days had their advantages, though, if you were going to play hooky at your uncle’s, say, to make moonshine. The income came in handy. To get around in these parts, Ralph bought his first mule when he was fourteen, for thirty-five dollars. And from these hardscrabble roots something else also sprouted. Ralph and Carter played the banjo and guitar, respectively, and sang—Carter in the lead, Ralph harmonizing—at the mining camps on payday.

What began at those camp sessions took Ralph Stanley farther than he ever dreamed. His tours have brought him to all fifty states—he’s played Carnegie Hall, Ryman Auditorium, Austin City Limits— and as far from Dickenson County as Japan, where a fan club and packed houses testify to his influence. But in a sense he’s never left these mountains, where he started out and will forever remain. This Memorial Day, he will hold his forty-third annual bluegrass festival in the natural amphitheater beside the final resting place of his mother and brother, in the family’s Hills of Home Cemetery, crowned by two enormous cedars and overlooking miles of hollows and ridges stretching toward Kentucky.

Stanley is eighty-five now, and he has put out some two hundred albums. His high lonesome tenor, exuding world-weariness, has been called “one of the most expressive voices in the history of American song.” It’s also one of the most recorded. Should a sculptor ever decide to carve a Mount Rushmore of bluegrass, Stanley will be a shoo-in. But mainstream celebrity did not come to him until he was in his seventies, following the release of the Coen brothers’ Depression-era, Odyssey-inspired movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000. The film’s inspired sound track, produced by T Bone Burnett, went multiplatinum, and Stanley’s solo a cappella rendition of the traditional Appalachian lament “O Death” stole the show, winning him a Grammy for best male country vocal performance. 

Oh death please consider my age
Please don’t take me at this stage
My wealth is all at your command
If you will move your icy hand

“I never expected it,” Stanley says of the award. “I’m just thankful I got it.” This, I learn when I visit his Virginia home, is about as effusive and egotistical an utterance as you’re ever likely to hear from him.

Stanley was raised on Smith Ridge, the home of his mother’s people. He has ensconced his extended family in a jumble of houses near the “old home place,” which he has preserved as it was when his mother, Lucy Smith Stanley, lived there, raising him and Carter by herself after her husband left, feeding them rashers of home-cured bacon cooked on a wood fire. 

I make the trip there with Jack Hinshelwood, executive director of the Crooked Road, a tourist trail through Virginia’s southwestern hill-music country (anchored, in part, by the Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center in Clintwood), and Joe Wilson, a longtime folk music promoter. I follow them from the town of Coeburn, and after an hour of twisting and turning on narrow Clinch Mountain roads, we arrive on the mountaintop.

We park behind Stanley’s sprawling yellow-brick ranch house next to Big Blue, a custom-outfitted, two-tone steel-and-teal tour bus. The bus has logged more than a million miles over the last decade, although in recent years Stanley has eased back on the throttle, trimming a schedule of 200 gigs a year to around 120. A trio of dogs greet us with Hee Haw shrugs and put their heads back down.