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Saturday, September 10, 2011


Ralph Stanley IS these mountains.
--Roni Stoneman

Ralph Stanley's new gospel album, A Mother's Prayer, arrived in the mail today. I put it on and played it right away, have played it ever since. Steve Sparkman, the banjo player who came into the band to play like Ralph in the time Ralph's fingers gave out, he left the band after the recording of this album. Ralph is singing the song, Come All Ye Tenderhearted, the story of a mother who left the house for a few minutes, it caught on fire, her babies were inside, she ran into the burning house because she couldn't live another day. Carter sang it before, on an album, An Evening Long Ago. Ralph sings it entirely different from how Carter sang it. His rendering of the song is mournful, but nothing like as mournful as Carter singing it. Ralph's song has less words that suggest the story, and it's every bit as haunting as Carter's telling the full story. Ralph sings it like an Old Baptist hymn with a drone fiddle behind him.  Carter loved those mournful old songs and sang them right. Maybe the song I like best on this new album is the title song, A Mother's Prayer. Ralph can sing a song to make you feel it in the heart. Because he sings from the heart, the song touches the heart of the listener. It's a powerful song and he delivers it with his own power.

In the liner notes, Ralph Stanley is quoted talking on gospel songs. "You have a different feeling in the gospel. I can put more in a sacred song than I can just an ordinary song. I can feel more. I feel like I'm doing myself, and maybe other people too, more good. I always do religious music. I don't ever remember going on stage without doing some hymns, at any appearance I was at. I always intend to do that. I like to sing em. I believe in em, and the people seem to like em too. And I guess if you believe in something you put more in it."

Though the Stanley Brothers were of the first run of bluegrass bands and Carter and Bill Monroe are neck and neck at being the finest bluegrass singer ever, the Stanley Brothers were never able to reach an audience outside the mountains. They were mountain specific. They were so a part of the mountain sound that is inaccessible to ears outside these mountains, as inaccessible as Marcus Martin's fiddle and Bertie Dickens's banjo, their music was rarely heard outside the mountains. All up and down the mountains they traveled by car in the time of inner tubes. Ralph was the driver. This hillbilly sound the Stanley Brothers had is the sound that gives joy to my ears. I love that old mountain sound, the squawking fiddle and clucking banjo, Ralph's extended syllables at the end of a line.

Now he's singing John The Revelator, an old-time hymn, singing it a capella. He's singing it the old-time Regular Baptist way, as only Ralph Stanley can do it. He sings every kind of way of gospel singing; bluegrass, old-time church, folk, a good variety. I call Ralph Stanley an artist the same as I call Edward Hopper an artist. Every album Stanley has made is a gem from first song to last, nary a weak song in the long list of titles he's recorded. He's performed his music so regularly since the end of WW2 that it seems like by now he's become his music. When asked about his voice, he says it's a "gift," the only honest thing he can say about it. He doesn't sing anything like vocal teachers say we're supposed to sing, rounded mouth, big open mouth. His lips seldom separate more than half an inch while he's singing. When Carter was dying, he told Ralph to go on singing. Ralph didn't believe he could sing good enough. He had always sung tenor with Carter and it was time for him to take the lead.

Right away when Ralph started playing with his own band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, his guitar player couldn't make a Cincinatti show. He asked the local promoter if he knew any guitar players who could get there right away and fill in. He called Larry Sparks, who was 17 or 19 according to two different dates I've found, Larry made it to the show. At the end of the show Ralph hired him. He became Ralph's lead singer, a Carter replacement. Larry was with the band 3 or so years. They made some beautiful music together. Then Roy Lee Centers came into the band, the man Ralph called the second-best bluegrass singer there ever was, reserving number one for Carter. That's a fair assessment of Roy Lee's singing. He could sing a mournful song too. One of his great ones was Lonesome Old Song. I've sought all the Ralph Stanley albums I can find with Roy Lee Centers on them and think I may have them. Then Roy Lee was killed by a home town boy who hated him because he sang so good and was with Ralph Stanley. Ralph tells the whole story of the murder in his memoir. It's a story that needed telling.

Man Of Constant Sorrow is the title of Ralph Stanley's recent memoir that sold a whole lot better than he, the publisher, anybody thought it would. The one that did the writing, put the hours of interview tapes into book form, deserves mention, Eddie Dean. He did a good job of writing it in Ralph's words, so it reads first person Ralph Stanley. It's in his words. Dean did an awful lot of work putting it together, then polishing it into a jewel. Man Of Constant Sorrow was the song Ralph always sang when he and Carter were the Stanley Brothers. It never made a bigger splash than the other songs they sang. Then the film, O Brother Where Art Thou, had Dan Tyminski, bluegrass mandolin player, sing Man Of Constant Sorrow. For the first time in Ralph Stanley's life he was making good money from royalties from the movie, the album. It had him on the album singing, O Death, which put Ralph Stanley's voice out into the world of better album sales and bigger concert attendance.

The album of O Brother got him awards, Nashville spotlight, and even recognition of the great one still living in the hills of home, the country singer that never moved to Nashville. Bob Dylan holds him up the very highest in American music. As do I. Up there with Bob Dylan, though in his own way, not like Dylan at all except they sing songs on stage. For me, Ralph Stanley is like something I've never heard before. The first principle of making mountain music is that you play/sing from the heart. I've heard it said, If it aint played from the heart, th'aint no music in it. Carter sang from the heart and touched the listener's heart too. It's a powerful thing, singing from the heart. Sara Carter of the Carter Family did and so did AP Carter. In the Clinch Mountains of SW Virginia, the soul of these Appalachian mountains found its voice in The Carter Family, the Stanley Brothers, and Dr Ralph Stanley. Thank you, Clinch Mountains.


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