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Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Italic richard morris

At 8:45 this morning I set out on the highway for Clintwood, Virginia, coal mining country near the Kentucky border in Dickenson County. Clinch Mountain country. Arrived at noon. Road work along the way probably set timing back an hour. I reckoned it would take about 2.5 hours, and it might have without all the times of stopping so long I turn the motor off and leave the radio going. There were times in the mountains there was no radio reception. Though I found a good one, 88.7 FM WMMT Whitesburg, Kentucky. All the time I was listening they were playing early bluegrass, Reno & Smiley, Monroe, Stanleys, Hi-Lo Brown. The dj's name was Mrs. Bluegrass. She played some good music. It felt good driving in the Clinch Mountains hearing bluegrass of my favorite period of bluegrass. Jim & Jesse are from that area. On the way to Clintwood, I took the old highway 72 instead of the 4-lane from Coeburn. I loved it. It twists and turns until you think you're about to tie a knot. Great big trucks. Narrow road.

This was the old road Ralph and Carter drove every day to Bristol and back to play the lunchtime radio show in their beginning. It was like that all the way to Bristol. All their driving to shows up and down the mountains was on roads as crooked as a running blacksnake. The mountains are walls either side of the highway, nearly straight up. The trees were full of fresh leaves everywhere. I came back by the 4-lane and regretted it. The longest Road Work wait of all. I'm glad I took 72, because it was the only road that gave the feeling of riding with the mountains. It gave me the experience of the Clinch Mountains, the legendary mountains of the Carter Family and Stanley Brothers. The other roads go through the mountains like they're not there. I thought of Ralph and Carter with their tires that used innertubes, changing flats by the side of the road at night. Years and years of driving serious mountain roads on weekends. I'd say by now Ralph is happy to have a bus and somebody else driving.

The man whose voice is these mountains knows these mountains well from all the years of mountain highways and being embraced by mountain people for the Stanley Brothers music that came out of the soul of these mountains. Ralph Stanley is as much a soul singer as Aretha Franklin. Carter too. Her soul came out of the church she grew up in. Ralph's soul came out of the mountain Primitive Baptist, which, where white soul is concerned, is soulful as it gets. A different culture, a different expression of soul. Aretha Franklin never brought me to tears like Ralph and Carter have. No music has brought me to tears like the Stanleys and the Carter Family. Years ago, the first time I heard Yasha Heifitz play Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy, I laid down on the couch and wept. Essentially, it's mountain music. Only mountain music causes me to weep. It's so incredibly beautiful to my heart it fills me with an overflowing fullness my eyes well up and that's it. Feeling is what it's about in mountain music and Ralph Stanley is the master of singing with feeling like Heifitz can play a fiddle with feeling. Both have this special gift that sets them apart from all others. Tommy Jarrell has it too in his plain manner.

Clintwood, Virginia, is not between here and anywhere else. It's not a place to stop and see on the way to someplace. I decided if I'm going to see the Ralph Stanley Museum it will have to be a trip specifically for that. A day on the road in mountains I've not yet experienced. I like the road to Marion and I like 81 to Abingdon, and from Abingdon on it was alternate 58 to Coeburn where I turned onto real mountain highway, thinking about Ralph and Carter driving this road at least twice a day for a lot of years. By the time I reached Clintwood, I was ready. I walked up the steps to the door feeling this is really special. Big Southern manse of a house with enormous columns that sits up from the road on a rise, beautifully kept.

Inside, I met Richard Morris, the volunteer on duty. We talked for a long time about "Doc." He told me of how he's come to know Ralph since working with the museum and has the same respect for Ralph Stanley I can say I have for Jr Maxwell. A kind of awe of a man who has lived a full life well. I mentioned I remind myself from time to time Ralph Stanley is just a man. Richard said, He is, he's just a man. He told me a bit about Doc's car collection, his wife Jimmie, who drives a Jaguar and she's still a country girl. He told of the time Doc's white mule he thought the world of bit him on the shoulder. He sold it. I told him that all my listeners of the Saturday morning radio show love Ralph Stanley. Every once in awhile I have a Ralph Stanley or Stanley Brothers day. If this coming Saturday wasn't going to be Green Mountain Boys day, it would be Ralph Stanley. I'll get him in a week or 2. But I have to share GMB with my listeners now. A lot of them remember the band.

In the museum is a small room reminiscent of old-time church house with benches and a tv of Ralph Stanley talking. Displays of banjos and fiddles and guitars. Curly Ray Cline's fiddle was there. And his shoes. Instruments from the Clinch Mountain Boys on the walls. Album covers, photographs, videos of Ralph and Carter, little plug-in places to listen to individual songs. The one I chose to hear was The Girl From The Greenbriar Shore. Beautiful song. They all are. I've never heard a song by Ralph or Carter I didn't love as much as I love all the rest. They're all equal to me. When my friends from Georgia were here, I took them to Fairview Ruritan to see The Clinch Mountain Boys. The concert was Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys twice. Two shows, one after the other. When it was over, Judy wanted to buy a cd. Looking at the big selection they had, she asked me which one was the best. I said, They're all the best. I wasn't kidding. Like at the radio station, it doesn't matter what I pick to play by Ralph Stanley. All of it is good.

Once I was asked what's the best bluegrass song ever written. A question it seems to me is like asking which---it's so absurd, it's not even a question. A test question. I couldn't take it seriously, yet at the same time it made me review songs I liked the best. The best can only be answered according to the given individual. Ask a hundred people and you'll get a hundred different titles with some inevitable overlap. I said, White Dove. It just came to mind as my own particular favorite bluegrass song. Best? Who cares? When Carter sings it and when Ralph sings it, it lives, it's alive. And it's mountain as it gets.

I drove away from Clintwood listening to Mrs. Bluegrass playing me the right music for what I was feeling. I've just now asked myself why it was important that I visit the museum. I've wanted to for some years. Waiting for a good weather day when I have no schedules, when the car is in tune, fresh oil and a full tank. All of it coincided on my birthday. I give myself a birthday present every year. Today's pilgrimage was my happy birthday to me. And a good day it was. It's been quite a lot of years since I've driven the highways of SW Virginia. It's beautiful country. Best of all was Hwy 72, that Clinch Mountain road. Richard, pictured above, said he grew up on that road half way between Coeburn and Clintwood.

Still, I haven't addressed why it's important. Can't name it. It's like the time in the modern art museum in Zurich, Switzerland, I saw a marble sculpture by a favorite artist of mine, Jean Arp, white marble, called Cloud. It's absolutely against the rules in such a museum to touch anything but the floor. But I had to do it. With the tip of my finger for a split second, just enough to make contact. I knew I was doing no harm, only breaking a rule---I'm an American. We break rules. It was the same impulse, to make symbolic contact with an artist I appreciate way high up.


1 comment:

  1. Old country churches stand vacant here. One might make a good museum for mountain music, shaped note singing -- anything but teapots.

    Happy Birthday