Ralph Stanley echoes ancient tones
By JOHN GEROME ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
CLINTWOOD, Va. -- The question sounds odd coming from Ralph Stanley, whose creaky tenor seems as ancient as the rugged mountains that rise above this mining town.
"You know what a Zimmer is?" Stanley asks, sitting comfortably in a white rocker, his hands creviced like walnuts and his hair wavy and gray.
It's a car, a rare and expensive "Neo-classic" car, and Stanley wants to get rid of his. "I offered to take $30,000 for it, and that's giving it away."
It's a safe bet there aren't many other Zimmers in this part of southwest Virginia, a land of coal mines and deep forests that Stanley has called home most his life.
But then the 79-year-old patriarch of mountain music has always had a progressive streak.
His a cappella dirge "O Death" from the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" movie soundtrack introduced him to a new generation of fans, and his latest recording, a homespun, unvarnished tribute to the Carter Family that comes out Tuesday, taps a demand for authentic American music.
Stanley spoke to The Associated Press at the Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center, a restored Victorian that was once the funeral home where his late brother and musical partner, Carter, was laid out 40 years ago.
The following day he was scheduled to travel to New England for a long weekend of shows.
And that's typical for Stanley, who performs about 100 concerts a year with his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, which includes his son, Ralph Stanley II, on guitar and his grandson, Nathan, on mandolin.
Despite triple bypass surgery last year, he boards his tour bus most Thursdays and returns to his 40-acre gentleman farm the following Sunday or Monday.
"I would hate to completely retire. But I would, if I had my way, like to slow down to 20 shows a year," says Stanley, a short, slight man with dark dress pants and pointed boots. "But that's in the good Lord's hands. I'll quit when he says so."
It's a cold, rainy morning and the mountains are obscured by fog. The museum sits across from a small row of shops with a hardware store and a diner. Like most mountain towns, every building seems shoehorned into the thin slices of flat land.
Stanley was born in a hollow about 12 miles from here. His father was a sawmill operator and his mother a homemaker who bought him his first banjo when he was 11 or 12. She taught him an old-time technique called clawhammer in which the player brushes the strings with his fingers rather picking them individually.
"She had 11 brothers and sisters, and out of the 12, why, every one of them could play the banjo. It was just born in them, I guess," he says.
His brother, Carter, learned guitar from a mailman who delivered on horseback. The boys would wait for him to round a bend in the road to teach them a new tune.
After serving in World War II, they formed the Stanley Brothers and their Clinch Mountain Boys in 1946. Influenced by Grand Ole Opry star Bill Monroe, they helped define the music that would become known as bluegrass, fusing Monroe's rapid rhythms with the mountain folk of groups like the Carter Family, who hailed from this same rocky corner of Virginia.
The Stanleys created a distinct three-part harmony that combined the lead vocal of Carter with Ralph's tenor and an even higher part sung by bandmate Pee Wee Lambert.
Carter's lyrics were melancholy and rich in imagery. In "The Fields Have Turned Brown," he tells of a young man who leaves home to ramble the country, strays from God and learns that his parents have died and left him alone: "But now they're both gone, this letter just told me. For years they've been dead, the fields have turned brown."
The duo were swept into the burgeoning folk movement and became popular at colleges and festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 and '64.
But when Carter, a friendly, outgoing man who drank too much, died of liver disease in 1966, Ralph wasn't sure he could continue. His brother had been the main songwriter, lead singer and front man, and Ralph, by his own account, was withdrawn and shy.
"Within weeks of his passing, I got phone calls and letters and telegrams and they all said don't quit. They said, 'We've always been behind you and Carter, but now we'll be behind you even more because we know you'll need us.'
"I think Carter knew he wouldn't be around long. We'd be on stage and we'd do a song and as we'd finish up he'd just walk off. If I didn't go to the mike and say something it would be left blank. I believe he did that for the reason that he knew I needed the experience. He never did say, but I believe that's what he done that for."
After Carter's death, Ralph drew even deeper from his Appalachian roots, adopting the a cappella singing style of the Primitive Baptist church where he was raised.
Rock icons Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia praised his work and, in the case of Dylan, joined him for a remake of the Stanley Brothers' "Lonesome River" in 1997.
"He's one of those rare guys who what he does is so pure and so defined, and he's so unwavering in it," said singer-songwriter Gillian Welch, who's recorded and performed with Stanley.
"And at this point, it seems to come so fully from his soul. It's like everything of the flesh has been burned away and all that's left is this sound and this music that this man makes. And it's very moving," she said.
As a soloist, Stanley had a knack for finding talented young musicians. One night in 1970 he arrived late for a show in West Virginia and heard Stanley Brothers music coming from the hall.
"I said, 'Well, maybe they've got our records in there.' And I opened the door and there was two young boys in there playing, and it was Keith (Whitley) and Ricky (Skaggs), and it was just a duplicate of the Stanley Brothers. I just sat and listened to two or three songs, and they held the crowd until we got ready to go.
"That night they told me if I could ever do anything to help them get started in music, they'd appreciate it. I had a full group at the time, but I saw the potential and I liked the boys and I told them 'OK, come on. We've got five in the car but we can cram seven in there.' So I hired them and took them on."
As a new wave of progressive players emerged in the '70s and '80s, Stanley became something of a relic. He had reached the point where he was being celebrated more for his past than his present.
Then, in 2000, the soundtrack to the Coen brothers' quirky comedy "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" became an unlikely blockbuster, selling 7 million copies and reviving interest in traditional folk and country, and Stanley was rejuvenated.
He won a Grammy for best male country vocal performance in 2002 - beating out Tim McGraw, Ryan Adams, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Lyle Lovett - and was the focus of a successful tour and documentary inspired by the soundtrack.
"I think it just cemented his name. It absolutely assured his place," said Welch, who also appeared on the "O Brother" soundtrack.
"Even though for people into these sorts of records he was already there, it just made him undeniably a part of the great American catalog in a really understandable way."
Stanley, who holds an honorary doctorate of music from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn., recognizes his lofty place in American music. He shows off the tidy displays of instruments, stage costumes and old pictures in his museum and talks at length about his career and his home.
But after a while he grows tired and says he needs to rest. Before he goes, he agrees to sing a couple verses of "O Death."
"O Death. O Death. Won't you spare me over 'til another year. Well, what is this that I can't see. With ice cold hands takin' hold of me. Well, I am death, none can excel. I'll open the door to heaven or hell."
And as he steps outside, the sun is breaking through the clouds and the fog is lifting from the mountains.
Here is an interesting article about Gillian Welch from The New Yorker.http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?040920fa_fact3