Ralph Stanley: Long Road to the Mountaintop
Stanley, fastidiously dressed in dark pants and a purple cowboy shirt with gold stitching, his signature silver hair brushed back, welcomes us and leads us into the kitchen. As we settle in on stools and chairs, his wife of forty-four years, Jimmi, strolls in wearing a bathrobe. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were here,” she says, apparently only mildly surprised to find three visitors in her kitchen, hanging on her husband’s every word. “I was going to wash my hair.”
Stanley was shy and reclusive growing up, but he is friendly and observant and has a twinkle in his eye. His mother—one of twelve Smith children, all banjo pickers—taught him to play in traditional clawhammer style, and the quiet boy came alive when he could hide behind a banjo. He would later learn to pick the more contemporary and rapid three-finger style. “I have a three-finger lick like all banjo players do,” he explains, “but you can tell the difference, a little different roll. Earl Scruggs was the first I listened to.” Scruggs himself, in fact, gave him some pointers. Stanley’s playing is tied to his singing. “If I put a slur in a word, I put it into my banjo the same way,” he elaborated in his 2009 autobiography, Man of Constant Sorrow (named after an old Stanley Brothers hit revived by the O, Brother sound track). “They’s both proper instruments, the voice and the banjo. I try to make my banjo sound as much like the sound of the words as I can.”
At that, Stanley’s twenty-year-old grandson, Nathan, comes in and joins us in the kitchen. With dark sideburns and hefty-Elvis looks, Nathan is now the lead singer and mainstay of the Clinch Mountain Boys, the band formed long ago to accompany the Stanley Brothers. “He taught me how to be a straight arrow,” he says, nodding at his grandfather, “how to be a good upstanding young man.” He also taught him a thing or two about music. Nathan first appeared onstage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1994, when he was two. “He’s kept it pure,” he says of his grandfather. “He’s kept it traditional. A lot of artists go with the flow. He’s never changed.” Nathan sees it as his job to keep his grandfather’s style of banjo playing going. “That style is rare,” he says. “It’s so simple, it’s hard. You almost have to be born with it.”
To this day, Ralph is disinclined to talk about himself much. Jimmi calls him Poker Face. When I ask if he has a favorite album, he says, “I like ’em all; I’ve done my best on all of ’em. And done ’em as natural as you can. No put-on.” Summing up his seven-decade career, he simply says, “Just tried to get better all the time. Never practiced much.”
Then he deadpans, “Might have been a bad mistake. I might have been good if I’d practiced.”
Nearly every old-timey musician has a hard-luck story, or demons. Doc Watson was blind and lost his son, Merle, in a tractor accident. Bill Monroe lost both parents before he was twenty, nearly died in a car wreck, and at least once had to duck a Bible hurled onstage at him by an irate woman. (I was there.) Carter Stanley, Ralph’s older brother, drank himself to death in his prime.
In their twenty years of touring together, Carter sang lead and cracked jokes. He was inevitably the life of the party—“a gregarious, handsome, back-slapping charmer,” as a writer once described him. Ralph had the more unusual voice, which made for rich harmonies and a haunting mountain sound. “Carter and me, when we were little boys, heard people on the radio and in church,” Stanley says. “Bill Monroe was my favorite singer. I liked his voice and the way he phrases.”
In 1946, after serving in World War II, Ralph and Carter formed the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys and took local radio by storm. Based in Bristol, Virginia, they loaded up the band and all their instruments in a hulking ’37 Chevy—later a ’39 Cadillac, then a Buick, then a Packard—on incessant tours, performing at drive-in movie theaters, high school gyms, county fairs, union halls, honky-tonks, and town halls. Life on the road was rarely dull. In Pikeville, Kentucky, in the heart of Hatfield and McCoy country, a show was canceled after one bootlegger unloaded his pistol into another on the dance floor.
Starting in 1948, the Stanley Brothers recorded for the major labels Columbia and Mercury, and that and their relentless touring led to exposure beyond the hills and hollows. Their hits ranged from the banjo instrumental “Shout Little Lulie” to the moonshine ode
“Mountain Dew” to the gospel “Angel Band.” Stanley still sings the ballads “Pretty Polly” and “Man of Constant Sorrow” at every show. The brothers, especially Ralph, resisted bending to country music fads. Once, when Carter suggested the radical idea of adding a Dobro to the mix, he threatened to quit.
Everywhere they went, people wanted to drink with Carter, and Carter never let them down. While touring near the end of his life, the band would pull over onto the side of the road so that he could heave blood. He died in 1966. At his funeral, in a packed high school gym, Bill Monroe sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” a cappella.
Afterward, Ralph, who had always stood in his brother’s shadow, who made sure bills were paid and the car had gas, was devastated. He credits faith and family for keeping him going, and slowly, he learned to take the spotlight while sticking close to his musical roots. He insisted on singing gospel songs at every gig, even at roughneck saloons, at one of which the owner unplugged his amps, igniting a brawl.