accidental zen garden
This morning the phone rang at 10:10. It was Bob Bamberg telling me Ralph Stanley is on Diane Rehm Show, 88.5FM. Bob appreciates Ralph Stanley and knows my appreciation. I was grateful when he told me and all the more grateful by the time it was over. To have missed it would be terrible. Tears ran down my face throughout the interview. Ralph Stanley does that to me. I go to a concert at the Fairview Ruritan and sit in tears from beginning to end. When I play Ralph Stanley, or the Stanley Brothers when Carter was living, on the radio show, tears run down my face. Same happens when I play the Carter Family.
It has a great deal to do with these mountains. That I have been received into the culture as an outsider is a source of such gratitude to bring tears. I've said it before, and will say it again, that playing mountain music for mountain people on a mountain county AM station in the next county west from WPAQ and south from WBRF is the greatest opportunity of my life. I dared never to have dreamed of such. Every Saturday morning I play magnificently beautiful music for people who love it. I think of the people I know of who are most likely listening and I know they are loving every particular tune. There are those that stand above and beyond all the others while being just like them, Ralph Stanley. I know that everyone listening to the show loves Ralph Stanley and I know how much they love him. As much as I do and more. When I don't know what I want to play, Ralph Stanley makes a good show any way I want to play him.
Hearing Ralph talk, his voice had the same beauty as it does singing. When Diane asked him to sing for her, I knew what she was seeing while she was hearing what I was hearing. His face never changes expression, his body doesn't move at all except in a relaxed kind of way, his lips range from a quarter inch apart to a half inch apart when he sings. His lips hardly move. By then she had a pretty fair measure of Ralph the man, but when he sat there and sang into the microphone, no emotive gestures of any sort, singing from the soul, emotion in the voice only, and it loaded with emotion, it took hold of her. I could hear her awe in his demeanor, his voice, his humility, his humanity that was right there wide open. By the end of her attempt to follow his lead with Amazing Grace, she was in the spirit. She felt it. She felt what Ralph Stanley does to me in concert, or just to hear him on cd. She was touched by the soul of these mountains. I was happy for her and glad to see it in her that she could receive it.
A few years back I went to Galax fiddlers convention and didn't get into it. I never felt any satisfaction with all the people and bands that played. I heard the bluegrass bands and felt like they were all sorry. What I'm telling you is it was more me than the bands, where my head was at, wherever that was. I walked to the parking lot, got in the van and put on a cd of Ralph Stanley, the one with the red album cover and a photo of him. Roy Lee Centers sings on it. One of my favorites. There it was. Bluegrass, mountain bluegrass played right. I talked with some musician friends about the situation and they said bluegrass at Galax in these years was dull. It's the old-time bands lighting up Galax in these years.
Part of the good time I had listening to Ralph and Diane talk was hearing Diane discover him. He looks like he could be any hillbilly man his age. First time I saw him I was surprised at how much he looked like Millard Pruitt, Tom's preacher brother. Millard could sing too. Millard could really sing. When Millard was in the spirit singing, he could seem like his feet were floating a half inch above the floor. Anyone who knew him, knows what I mean. First time I heard him, a city dude then listening to punk rock of late 70s, Millard and Ray Caudill sang together at a night church meeting Tom took me to. It was ancient. It sounded like it could be two old Tibetan men, or American Indian old men, or Sufi old men. It was from another world, a universal world where it's all the same thing, sung from a deep spiritual place that encompasses every aspect of their lives.
The old-time religion Ralph Stanley came from with the Old Baptist way of drawing syllables out into 2 and sometimes 3, was sung by people who loved God in all parts of their lives. They are the people Ralph Stanley came from, people who in this day and time continue to assemble and sing the old way. When it comes to the quality of his voice, it really works in his gospel songs. Carter had it too. When Ralph Stanley sings a gospel song you feel it. I loved hearing Diane Rehm feel the place within where Ralph's voice took her. She heard what it is about mountain music, these mountains, the old ways, the spiritual depth or expansion of the soul singing these old songs in a church with others, all there to praise God. The songs are such that you get something from them while singing them. Like Psalms in that way.
When it comes to expectation, I would never have expected to hear what I heard. I heard Diane Rehm discover Ralph Stanley live on the air, and seeing the magnitude of this tiny man who probably doesn't weigh 120. I heard her fascination grow as she discovered in him his true hillbillyness, which isn't Beverly Hillbillies at all, but something real, something true that runs deep. She felt the spirit in him that flows from him to the audience in a concert, and from the audience back to him, and from him back to the audience, an ongoing circle of love energy. I've felt that with Doc Watson too. He loves his audience and his audience loves him in turn, increasing their love for him, and his for them until the circle of energy flows through the whole place. I heard Diane Rehm go through in an hour what I've gone through since I lived in these mountains, ongoing awe for mountain people and mountain ways that grew into love. By the end of singing Amazing Grace with Ralph, she was there. I'd guess this show would be way high up there in her archive of favorite shows.
When I hear Ralph Stanley, I hear all the people I have known in these mountains and every man I've talked with of his age. He talks like any mountain man of his generation, and has the manner of singing of an Old Baptist preacher. It's that universal place Ralph comes from, the Clinch Mountains of southwestern Virginia where the music tradition goes all the way back to across the ocean and no telling how far back there. Ralph called himself a singer of mountain music instead of bluegrass. It's true. Like Roni Stoneman said of him, Ralph Stanley IS these mountains. There's no 2 ways about that.