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Tuesday, November 23, 2010


ralph stanley museum

Three hours on the road to Clintwood, Virginia, deep in the Clinch Mountains, slight rain, beautiful landscape, late November, trees largely bare, coal hauling trucks everywhere, big trucks. I misremembered the highway, I thought, believing last time I drove 72 in May the road had no white or yellow lines. This time it had the lines. I know my memory is a mess, but this didn't seem right. Later, talking with Pam Morris in the museum, she suggested the road might have been paved recently, the road takes a lot of wear from the big trucks. I did have to stop for road work once on that trip. Evidently it had just been repaved and the lines not yet put down. It was an entirely different road with the lines on it. I did notice a few places that were familiar from last time, but it never seemed right. I asked Richard Morris at the desk if there are two 72s. No, just one. It was a peculiar feeling.

I'd far rather drive into the Clinch Mountains by the old road instead of 4-lane. It turns back on itself several times, not just a few. Some of the trucks are so long they have to take the whole road to make those turns. I felt like it was ON when I left the 4-lane at Coeburn, where I think Jim and Jesse McReynolds are from, turning onto hwy 72, going deep into the mountains, through the mountains where you still can see rusted junk cars and pickups in yards, even a few houses that resemble shacks, but not many. The road is a mountain road from one end to the other. My heart expanded driving the mountain highway to Clintwood, the road Ralph and Carter, the Stanley Brothers, took to Bristol every day for years, and their weekend shows all over the mountains.

The Stanley Brothers never caught on much outside the mountains. Their only hit outside the mountains was a song they made up from a joke in the recording studio with one more track to come up with. How Far To Little Rock. It's good hillbilly humor, but the listeners outside the mountains evidently didn't connect with their music, which is particularly mountain music. They were so mountain, they were not very accessible outside the mountains, like the Laurel Fork Travelers and Tommy Jarrell. It's a curiosity to me that the Stanley Brothers never connected with listeners outside the mountains, but for musicians. For one thing, they were excellent musicians and pop music doesn't often reward excellence. Richard, at the museum, told me that somebody asked Dr Ralph why he didn't move to Nashville. His answer, I wasn't born in Nashville.

Dr Ralph was not at the museum today, which I felt a bit balanced about; glad on the one hand and disappointed on the other hand, each about the same degree, and neither hardly even an emotion. I went the way I approach about everything in this time of the life, going with God's will, whatever that may be. On the road, thinking about it, I had no problem leaving it to whatever happens. I didn't feel like it was necessary to meet Ralph Stanley. I don't go after autographs, but I went after his in my copy of his book. I was comfortable either way. It's best he wasn't there, because I'd have choked up. I know it. My purpose in the trip was to leave the painting with them, and that was it. I told Pam I claim no rights. From the moment I handed it to them, it's property of the museum, no strings attached. It was my love gift to the Stanley museum. It was conceived in there, and I felt like today I gave it birth.

First thing Pam noted while looking at it was Steve Sparkman, Ralph's banjo picker who played Stanley style, was leaving the band today. She saw right away it had Ralph with the banjo, not Sparkman. I was happy to see that they were happy to have it in the museum. Pam and Richard agreed right off it belonged in the small room painted white with the old-time church benches where visitors watch a video of the Stanleys. I didn't mention that room was my pick for where I'd like to see it, because I didn't feel like it was my place to be arranging a museum. But it felt good to get my wish without expressing it. A place on the wall in there was waiting for it.

I was especially happy they both thought it favored him well. I told Pam it had already had its compliment that satisfied me such that I feel like I touched the star I was reaching for. It was when Joe Edwards said, 'I can hear them playing.' That was it. I don't need any more feedback. That one told me it did what I set out to do, that nebulous something unnameable I attempted to breathe into it that would make somebody looking at it feel like they can hear the music. Joe's comment told me it was worth giving to the museum. I could only give them my very best, and believe I reached my best in it.

Pam took me to their community center, a big room with a lot of tables, chairs upside down on the tables. It was an interesting maze to walk through looking at 8 paintings a woman who lives there painted on a commission for the walls in the room. Every one was beautiful as beautiful gets. You could study one for an hour easily and never get tired of looking at it, put up a tent and live in it for awhile. The colors, the compositions, the content, every one I felt a major WoW standing in front of it. Her name is Ellen Elmes. She painted a mural on a big public wall downtown Clintwood, in sight of the museum. I felt immensely honored to be in her artistic company. Honored is how I felt all the way home. It's a deeply honored feeling, honored within, like I've done something worth doing that goes to the good for all concerned.


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