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Tuesday, January 26, 2010


won't you spare me over another year

Ralph Stanley's memoir Man of Constant Sorrow read out from under me earlier today. Finished the last page with those tears of joy again, it such a beautiful account of, really, just a man that was borned and lived out his life in these mountains. It just happens to be a gift that he sings like he does and plays a banjo like he does. He received his talents as gifts from God and developed them. Over and over throughout the account of his life he will call one thing and another that comes to him a gift. His wife was a gift. His children and grandchildren and greatgrandchildren are gifts. That the soundtrack of the movie O Brother was a gift that brought a wave of attention to him such that he felt he reaped in old age, from 75 on, for all the sowing he'd been doing all his way along, keeping it going.

Reading Ralph Stanley tell his life felt an awful lot to me like sitting at the table listening to Jr tell his life in two hour conversations almost every evening for 5 years, until it was all told. I've now listened to Ralph Stanley tell me his life from beginning to present in the same language Jr spoke, the same sayings, "meaner'n a striped snake," 2 syllables for striped, the experience of playing your music on stage in front of people who paid to hear you make music. I've likened the way Jr told me his life to leaves falling from a tree in the fall, one at a time from any random place in the continuum that is the tree.

Dr Ralph's story is told one leaf at a time, though arranged in chronological order by the man who transcribed to print the recordings of Ralph talking, Eddie Dean. It is written in Ralph's own rhythms of talking, his own words, his own feelings, his own truth, which is his life. Dean deserves notice for attention to Ralph's speech patterns. He got it all but the accent, but it's there for them that know it. I love it about Ralph Stanley that when he's in California he pronounces can't, cain't. He hasn't homogenized his language or accent over his years in show business for the sake of glamor. He's a country boy with a close family, a son and a grandson carrying on the Stanley name and the Stanley sound into the next generations. His home is the Clinch Mountains of old Virginny.

He's a rare individual in American music. He managed to be a recording artist playing music all over these mountains and make a fair enough living to keep him going with a degree of encouragement long after the rest of the bluegrass world fell into panic after the lightning bolt of rock & roll. He said Carter always believed it was going to get better around every dark bend. Ralph Stanley has lived at home in the Clinch Mountains of Dickenson County, southwestern Virginia, all his life. The place for his grave is there too. He managed to live out in the mountain and by the time he's 75 be singing Amazing Grace a capella on prime time tv to the whole country on the music awards show, after getting the big award, "a living legend," the old Primitive Baptist way.

When he lost Carter, he found his way in the old way, keeping the old-time mountain music alive. When rock & roll knocked bluegrass off its rails, Ralph was moving higher up the mountain, going back to the music he grew up singing in the Primitive Baptist Church and at home with mama and Carter when they were kids. His connection with Carter his brother, everyone close kin to him, was deep and inseparable. Ralph Stanley's homeplace is his home all his life.

Here is a passage of Ralph talking about his Clinch Mountains.

This is where I was borned and raised and it's where I'll be buried. It's been good to me, and I don't want to leave behind the land I'm from. There's something about these Clinch Mountains. The mountains don't lie to you; they stand for the things that don't change, that stay true to themselves. They've been around a hundred million years and they'll be around for a good while more, I reckon. They keep you humble. They put you in your place. I'm going to see if I can make one hundred years myself. I figure that's what I'll do and then I'll go back into the ground that raised me.

He said he would make one more album and it more than likely gospel. With TBone Burnett producing it, I'm hoping he will, it will be another best album and/or song of the year and shine such a light on Dr Ralph Stanley that all he'll see is a glare. Listening to Ralph Stanley and seeing him on stage is, in fact, seeing an old white-haired Primitive Baptist man standing there singing in church the old way. It is the very same. His inner strength, his spiritual conviction, is with him everywhere at all times. Every page of the book confirmed for me what Roni Stoneman said of him, "Ralph Stanley IS these mountains."

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