The king of Clintwood
By Ralph Berrier Jr.
Part 5 of a six-part series
Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times
||Jack Cooke, bass player for Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys plays during the Ralph Stanley Festival in
. Cooke, of
, has been a Clinch Mountain Boy since 1970, making him the longest serving Clinch Mountain Boy except for Ralph Stanley.
CLINTWOOD The most popular exhibit at the new Ralph Stanley Museum is Ralph Stanley.
"Dr. Ralph," as folks have known him since Lincoln Memorial University bestowed an honorary doctorate on him in 1976, parked his Subaru Outback right in front of the grand Victorian house and former funeral parlor that now bears the name "Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center."
"Not many people get something like this while they’re still living," Stanley said appreciatively of the 2,200-square-foot house that's chock-full of musical memorabilia. For an out-of-the-way stop at the end of a truly crooked road, the museum is an uptown showpiece, complete with high-tech, interactive gizmos and videos.
Stanley strode triumphantly up the front steps as unsuspecting fans began snapping digital photos. Old-timers greeted him on the porch as if he were an arriving dignitary which, of course, he is.
Adorned in a flashy purple shirt, bolo tie and shiny black jacket, his head ennobled by a thick crown of silver hair, he is the closest thing to royalty this old coal town has.
*High-speed connection recommended
Stanley agreed to meet photographer Kyle Green, video/audio journalist Seth Gitner and me for a visit during the Memorial Day weekend. We’re glad we went then, because a month later, Stanley underwent emergency triple-bypass heart surgery.
In May, he appeared robust and healthy. Hours after our interview, Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys kicked off his annual bluegrass festival with a fine set of the ancient-sounding mountain bluegrass that he has played since he and older brother Carter Stanley first began making records in 1946.
Ralph Stanley has long been a legend in these parts. He was a legend even before the "Ralph Stanley for President" bumper stickers began popping up in the late 1970s and early '80s. In the last five years, though, he has become something more than that; he has come to symbolize the timelessness and durability of this old music and this region.
After years of playing for hardcore bluegrass fans, an act akin to a mountain preacher sermonizing to the converted, Stanley stepped into a Nashville recording studio early in 2000 to cut one song for what was sure to be an obscure soundtrack for an obscure movie.
O brother, did things change in a hurry.
Of all the factors that led to a surge of popularity in old-time mountain music, the phenomenal success of the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack is probably the single biggest. The album topped the country and pop charts, beat out U2 for the Album of the Year Grammy and earned Stanley his first Grammy after more than 50 years in music.
And it made fans of a new generation that wouldn’t have known Ralph Stanley from Stanley Laurel. It converted the masses.
"Ten million sales changed everybody’s mind," Stanley said during our interview in the museum.
The soundtrack’s influence on plans for The Crooked Road, Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, shouldn’t be underestimated either. The sounds of Southwest Virginia dominated the disc, from Stanley’s bone-chilling a cappella reading of "Oh Death" to the Stanley Brothers, the Carter Family and Dan Tyminski, a longtime Ferrum resident who sang the album’s signature song, "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," which was based on the Stanley Brothers' famous version.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, The Crooked Road winds from Ferrum through Carter country to Stanley’s museum, tying the places together like pearls on a necklace.
"I don’t know why a lot of things, a lot of songs, were written about what happened in Southwest Virginia," Stanley said. "Southwest Virginia is good country where people are interested in music and like it. It’s bred in them."
Stanley’s family played music, and he grew up singing spirituals in McClure Primitive Baptist Church, whose congregation did not allow instruments. Stanley learned to play banjo at home from his mother, Lucy, who taught him "Shout Little Luly" in the old-time clawhammer style.
He and his brother Carter sang and played duets in their youths, then turned professional after World War II. Carter was the frontman, the back-slapping, wisecracking leader of the band. Ralph stayed off to the side, letting his antediluvian tenor singing speak for him.
The truth is, the gift of gab doesn’t come naturally to Ralph Stanley. He’s friendly and accommodating, even to reporters, but he’s not one to just shoot the bull for hours on end. Carter was different, and that was good for Ralph.
Things changed when Carter died in 1966 of liver disease, the ultimate consequence of years of fast living. After Carter died, Ralph had to step up to the front microphone.
"I had two ways to go," Stanley said. "Up or down. I’m proud I went up."
He also went back, taking the modern, radio-ready bluegrass of the Stanleys’ sound back to the mountains. The old-time sound suited Stanley’s incomparable voice, an instrument that wouldn’t sound out of place on an old field recording from the 1920s. When I saw him at the festival later that afternoon, one of the highlights of his performance was "Shout Little Luly," the old banjo tune he learned from his mother. He plays it at every show.
Yet for all the old-timey wrappings, he’s not a relic even if there is a museum dedicated in his name. Once he recovers from his surgery, he’ll probably get back onstage with the Clinch Mountain Boys, an ensemble that includes Ralph Stanley II.
After our visit, he couldn’t get away from the museum because of all the fans who begged him to pose for pictures and sign autographs. He obliged everyone, always seeming a bit bashful about it. He signed about 30 albums, neatly writing "Dr. Ralph Stanley" smack on the banjo adorning each cover.