Ralph Stanley: Long Road to the Mountaintop
Unflagging, Stanley went on to nurse the next generation of bluegrass and country standouts. He hired Larry Sparks, and later Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley, to join the Clinch Mountain Boys. More recently, Ralph and Jimmi’s son, Ralph Stanley II, whose voice and guitar chops hark back to his uncle Carter, played for the band and then went solo, earning Grammy nominations of his own.
Before we leave, Stanley breaks out his banjo and plays us some tunes, first in the old drop-thumb clawhammer style, using the backs of his fingernails, then with picks. Slowed by arthritis, he doesn’t play as much anymore, but he still loves to sing. “I do just a little clawhammer now and then,” he says. “If I don’t have the banjo to think about, I can put more into my singing.” With the burnish of age, his voice is, if anything, more moving, more haunting, more mournful than ever.
Oh death, Oh death
Won’t you spare me over ’til another year
Well, what is this that I can’t see
With ice cold hands taking hold of me
“I sing it the way I feel it,” he says. “No put-on to it. I just sing, and it’s lonesome.”