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Friday, May 22, 2009


Thought I'd put on some Ralph Stanley in concert 1975 and write you about the experience of seeing Ralph and the boys make music. Now I can't write for listening. When I hear Ralph Stanley's band I can't do anything but listen. Roni Stoneman spoke truth when she said 'Ralph Stanley IS these mountains.' His voice is animated by the soul of the mountains.

Ralph, himself, is a mountain old-timer. He's 81. With his brother Carter, he started recording as the Stanley Brothers at the end of WW2. Ralph was in the Navy during the war. Carter had played with Bill Monroe's band and caught the bluegrass bug. Right now they're singing In Memory of Carter Stanley, the finest bluegrass singer there ever was. In my own estimation. Roy Lee Centers is a close second. Ralph too.

I don't know what it is about Ralph Stanley's voice. Perhaps it's that he sings totally from the heart. The space between his lips is open a quarter to a half an inch and his lips never move. He stands stone still at the mic and his face, even his eyes never change expression. But the emotion, the feeling in his voice is such that he can make tears run down your face for the beauty of it.

In the old-time tradition of preachers who give themselves over to the Holy Spirit to speak through, it seems like Ralph Stanley gives his voice over to the Soul of the Mountains and it sings through him. He just stands there like he has nothing to do with it, as much an observer as anyone in the audience.

Old-time mountain tradition leaves off outward expression of the song's emotion. It's up to the voice itself to express the emotion. Or in the case of an old-time band where the musicians all stand still while they play the fire out of something like Breaking Up Christmas, if the feeling aint in the music no jumping around will put it there. It was all about the music and only the music. The musicians were conduits for the music. They don't even accept praise for what they do. Because, in a sense, they didn't do anything but let the music flow through them.

Self-curtailed expression comes from the old-time 18th Century religion that forbade emotional expression in any way except maybe to scream when you're burned at the stake for being an independent woman. That didn't happen here, as far as we know, but it's part of the history. It sounds pretty restrictive from our point of view in the time we're in, but in their time it was tradition. It was how it was and always was and always would be. It's what was done. A child who might dare question it would be smacked and told to watch his mouth.

It came into our time as straight-faced, straight-laced, hard-shell old-time religion. And it's an extraordinarily beautiful expression of worship. The singing is devoid of emotion because the feeling in the singing is way deeper than emotion. That's where Ralph Stanley sings from, that place deeper than emotion. Little Maggie on the beach with liquor bottles all around her and a banjo on her knee. Drinkin away her troubles.

The last time I saw Ralph Stanley was the winter before last at Fairview. Went with my friends, Lucas and Judy Carpenter, from Georgia, and Debi Pruitt from here. None of them had seen him in concert. Debi has loved him for years. Carpenters had only heard of him. Big Country Bluegrass was scheduled to open, but they weren't there, so Ralph and the Boys played two shows for us with a fifteen minute break between. It was unforgettable. Three hours of some of the finest musicians in bluegrass layin it to it.

Sitting in front of me was a man and a woman. He appeared to be in his 40s and she in her 30s. Nice looking woman. Clean cut guy. People who worked in offices. About an hour into the music she leaned her head on his shoulder. I saw her lips speak into his ear, Thank you.

The picture above I got at the Blue Ridge Music Center on the Parkway just 4 miles over the state line into Virginia. This is a great musical resource we have right here in our lap. Thank you, United States Government, us, we the taxpayers. The Fairview Ruritan is another bonus nearby. Fairview is my favorite place of all to see Ralph Stanley. The feeling in the place is like church. A reverential awe hovers over the audience. And I contribute to it.

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