There’s a quote frequently used to describe how old blues musicians managed to get the sound they did despite having no formal training, “it’s in him, and it got to get out.” That came to mind last weekend as I heard of the passing of Dr. Ralph Stanley. Anyone who heard Stanley perform O Death, and quiet a crowd of thousands of people to utter silence, can attest to him channeling a plea to the spirit world.
More commonly he applied his melancholy wail atop the harmonies and instruments of his long-time band, the Clinch Mountain Boys. Started as an outgrowth of the band Ralph had with his brother, Carter, the Clinch Mountain Boys were family, both literally and figuratively. Yet even with toe-tapping melodies and back up, Stanley could take traditional folk songs and bring a depth you hadn’t heard before. When he sang, “no mother or dad, not friend did I see,” Rank Stranger hits you with pure desolation.
Interestingly enough, his band and his vocals were the second act in Stanley’s musical life. Beginning in 1946 and up until his brother’s death in 1966, The Stanley Brothers featured multi-part harmonies and helped popularize bluegrass with their uptempo renditions of the original Appalachian songs they’d grown up hearing. Pretty Polly, Man Of Constant Sorrow, and the aforementioned Rank Stranger were all introduced to much of America by the brothers. When added to Carter’s song-writing repertoire, those shows must have been amazing.
In the end, that’s where Dr. Stanley’s legacy means the most to me. Lots of people have tried to use words to describe one of Ralph’s performances, myself included, and we’ve all failed. There’s no way to appreciate the beauty without being there. Whether you go see a legend or the local kids with talent, words and notes don’t begin to describe the full experience, and it’s why you should go see live music. Thank you Ralph.
About the author: I've actually driven from Tehatchapee to Tonopah. And I've seen Dallas from a DC-9 at night.