fiddlin art wooten on left
This morning I stuffed all my Stanley Brothers cds in the library bag used for carrying radio station stuff, like the pair of glasses that are not my prescription, but so close it doesn't matter, for reading minuscule print on cd packages, and the cd with the theme song on it. I keep one of them at the station too for when I forget to bring the one I carry. The text of the commercial is in the bag too. I wanted to play Stanley Brothers because I am reading about them now, I love them and wanted to hear especially their early music, like first recordings not very many months after they started, with Leslie Kieth playing the fiddle and Art Wooten.
I was listening closely to their voices, what they were doing, singing in the style of a brother duet they especially liked, the Blue Sky Boys from around Lenoir. Smooth harmonizing. I saw them playing every night of the week in places all over these mountains, Bristol the hub they went out from in all directions, playing on stages in small town movie theaters, courtrooms, school auditoriums. From the start, the very start, they were getting audiences of 2-300 every night. They played what Ralph calls mountain music played a new way, and people all over these mountains took to it. It was hillbilly music, so much so it was not accessible to ears from outside these mountains. Like fiddler Marcus Martin in that way. It's just not enjoyable to any but a mountain ear. Occasionally, somebody from the flatland would appreciate it, but not enough to keep Carter and Ralph in contracts with record labels.
The only time a song of theirs made the Billboard charts was when How Far To Little Rock touched 17. They needed one more song to fill out the album they were in the studio recording in Cincinnati, 1960. It came to them to take their stage jokes and put them to this song they'd learned from an old banjo picker they knew when they were kids. Spontaneously made it up in the studio and recorded it. Here's Ralph talking about it, "Then, we thought it was really funny, because we'd just cut the joke song as a joke, which it was, and then the joke got us our only hit. Makes you wonder about the music business." Every time they tried to stretch beyond the mountains for audiences it never worked out. Bristol was their base. Their music was just right for the hillbilly ear and just wrong for the flatlander ear. There's not hardly enough hillbillies to generate a great deal of income for musicianers.
Over the hour of the program I heard the evolution of their voices from smooth harmonizing in The Girl Behind The Bar to the Primitive Baptist style Ralph continues to sooth our ears with, Carter singing East Virginia Blues. I say evolution, because the changes from one way to the other spanned 10 years of almost every night making music someplace out in the mountains. A little change here, a little change there. Let's tighten this up. Let's loosen that up. A little more emphasis, a little less emphasis. A lot of people say with conviction Carter Stanley is the best bluegrass singer there ever was. That's like saying Maybelle Carter is the best guitar picker there ever was. Maybe so, maybe not. I won't dispute it either way, though in my way a-hearin, Carter is the best there ever was. Ralph is too.
Barbara, one of my listeners, called during the show after I'd mentioned fiddler Art Wooten was from here. She hadn't known that. It tickled her when I said he lived in Twin Oaks when he died. He's in the Elk Creek Primitive Baptist cemetery on Hwy93 close to Farmer's Fish Camp Road. He played on Rambler's Blues and Molly And Tenbrook in 1948 on the Rich-R-Tone label. Art was every bit the hillbilly they were. He had the Primitive Baptist music in him too. I hear that old-time singing in bluegrass like I hear black Baptist church singing in Aretha Franklin. It seems like as Ralph Stanley has grown older his singing has reached further back into his original music such that he sometimes sounds like an old preacher, like Millard Pruitt. Millard, too, had a singing voice that was a gift and sang up out of the soul of these mountains. He was not the only one. These mountains have good singers all over them.
At the end of Carter singing East Virginia Blues it hit as a shock to my system to have to stop playing the music. Next the North Carolina News from NCNN. It felt like a knife stabbing a pillow. It does that to me every week. I play music to uplift the listeners, give them the good feeling of good music they only get to hear once a week, their own music, music from home. Then, Bam! A hammer on a brick. The News. The latest up-to-date murder and mayhem brought to you by real loud noise Ford Pickups, varoom, varoom. Crank up the chainsaw! Let's make some noise! Let's Partay! Yeah!
I replaced the cds in their cases while the symphony of hammers hitting steel crashed around in my cranium scrambling the eggs. It set Sue to complaining about what's wrong with the world. I put on my jacket saying, "It's the world." I thought of words from John Lennon in the song Revolution, "if you want to change the world, change your mind instead." My editor within recommended not saying it, a little too preachy, and she has to find it for herself, like I had to find it for myself. I walked out the door singing in my head, If you want to change the world, change your mind instead.