The snow is on the ground in patches now, like the white on a tan and white dog. The sky Carolina blue in relation to the ground makes one of the more beautiful days of the year. A good day to drive to town and back with windows up. A good day to see Kermit to get my head bristles shortened, the man in the chair the only one in there. He was a man of these mountains, someone I've seen a few times over a lot of years, familiar face in the county, couldn't even venture a name, like someone you'd see in the audience at a Ralph Stanley concert. First thing I thought when I saw him was he looks like someone who would have been in the audience when Carter was living, though I wouldn't think he'd be that old. A man of the country.
Seeing Kermit again is always good. We talk about Jr all the time and both of us enjoy remembering him. Kermit plays bass and guitar. He's with the Jubilee house band, The Rise & Shine Band. It always does me good to see Jr's friends. He was embarrassed to show his face in town, because in his own eyes he was the county fool. He was going along good and everything went out from under him. Shame-faced is what he was in Sparta. Yet, everyone who saw him was happy and lit up seeing him, wanting to talk with him, ask him if he's still picking. He wasn't pickin, he wasn't nothin any more. The man on the trash heap.
I knew it then and I've seen it frequently since that the mention of his name triggers love in the hearts of people who knew him. No one can speak high enough of Jr to their own meaning or be happier to see him when they do than about anyone who knew him. It can be said without fear of contradiction that anyone who ever knew Jr is his friend. I feel it in everyone who talks about him. The man in the chair ahead of me was tall and thin, and particular about his hair. The kind of man that makes a good dancer. I imagined he might have danced to many a tune by the Green Mountain Boys back in them days.
Reading Ralph Stanley tell his life, growing up in the mountains in the 1930s and 40s, I'm familiar with much of how things were from listening to Jr and Tom Pruitt and Millard Pruitt over the years, and others like Bessie Brooks and Malissie Pruitt. I'm right there with everything Ralph says. The sentences are written in hillbilly talk language softened up the least little bit by the grammar readers are used to. Ralph doesn't talk about playing bluegrass. He and Carter played and Ralph still plays mountain music. When he and Carter tried out for their first job, he said they played mountain music a new way. Audiences took to them at the very start, like first show.
Jr was of that era, the country boys hearing Bill and Charlie Monroe pickin as fast as they went, putting pep into music that Jr among others thought was too draggy to mess with. When bluegrass cranked things up, these mountains lit up with young boys picking it up and starting bands. Coincidentally, the Stanley Brothers started out when the door to high-powered old-time opened. The fiddler in the first band they played with played banjo too and took Ralph's banjo away from him and played a number every set. Ralph hated it and quit the band. He mentioned to Carter they'd been talking all along about their own band. Now's the time.
Carter and PeeWee Lambert left the band and next was The Stanley Brothers & the Clinch Mountain Boys.
WCYB in Bristol was starting up. They had an opening for a half hour at lunch time every day for a band. Ralph said bands came from all over the coal region of the mountains looking for a chance to get out of the mines. They got the job after playing 3 songs. It was the new way that got it for them. They were given no money. The man told them it will make their names and they can go out and do shows and build their following and make their money that way. And they did.
I've an idea this book with the recent recordings Ralph Stanley made with TBone Burnett the producer will bring attention to Stanley until he's held up on the shoulders of everyone in America who loves music, and the world. He's been on the road driving up and down these mountains while pop stars came and went, playing mountain music in the background to the people of the mountains. The movie O Brother brought a lot of due attention to Ralph, and now this memoir will bring a great deal more. By the time his spirit leaves the body, he will have reached the peak of his great high mountain, "and you ought to see the view." It feels good to me to see him honored and recognized for who he is. All he's ever done is sing the old songs. By now, he's the master.
He's playing at Fairview Ruritan Saturday night, 7:30. Every chance to see him might be the last. Only $20. Right here at home.