A visit to the Stanley Brothers’ birthplace

On April 13th 2018, I made my way to Haysi, Virginia to say goodbye to my longtime childhood friend and fellow musician, Ernie Thacker. Ernie and I were hard Stanley nuts as two boys growing up in Northeast Ohio could be. We played local grange halls and just about anywhere we could gather to pick bluegrass. In the spring of 1990, we found ourselves back together as I filled in on lead guitar for a couple months with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys in the absence of Junior Blankenship. Our love for the Stanley style of bluegrass is something that never left.

Anytime I am in the area of southwest Virginia, I try to do some Stanley adventuring. On this trip, I had a couple of places on my radar, and with the help of longtime friend and Stanley professor Gary Reid, I found what I was looking for.

First was the Hilltop Motel, located in Haysi. This was a well known place in the area that provided rooms, with a dance hall next door called The Pink Room. The Stanley’s would often stop here to perform on their way back home from playing shows in Grundy, Virginia. The significance of the Hilltop was as follows: one evening in January 1957, on the way home from a show, the rains had come at a record pace, water rose and roads became impassable. While driving around that night in the flooded terrain looking for a place to stay, Carter, with pen and paper in hand wrote the words to the famous Stanley Brothers song, The Flood of 57, which was part of their legendary Mercury sessions. The band took Refuge at The Hilltop Motel that evening, and the next day worked up the music to the classic song at the motel.

Chris Smith at the Stanley Brothers homeplace - photo by Chris Smith

The second place on my list was the original home place and birthplace of the brothers, on Big Spraddle Creek in Stratton, Virginia. Little is known about the house on Big Spraddle, but with the help of Gary Reid, and some old notes I had, we may be able to shed some light on the old place.

After the death of her first husband, Lucy Smith was left with one daughter, Ruby. Lucy purchased the house in Stratton sometime in the early to mid ‘20s. Her family owned most of the property up the mountain on Smith Ridge. Wanting to stay close, the home at the bottom of the mountain was only 3 miles from there. She wed Lee Stanley at the end of 1924. August 27, 1925, saw the birth of Carter, and on February 25, 1927, came Ralph. An addition was added to the back of the home in the late ‘20s for the boys’ bedroom. Ralph had recalled that the room had cracks in the walls, and sometimes in the winter, the boys would wake up to snow on top of their quilts.

I had asked Ralph a couple times in the late ‘80s about the house. He recalled feeling safe being tucked up in the head of the holler, and the sound of the creek running seemed fresh in his memory. I’ve heard him say many times that he and Carter would go to sleep with the sound of the Big Spraddle running down through the mountain. Sometime between 1935 and 1936, after the murder/suicide of the boys’ aunt and uncle (in 1932), the property on Smith Ridge became available and Lucy Smith Stanley moved the family back to the top of the Mountain were she was raised, something she had always wanted. Ralph recalled really missing the house on Big Spraddle but loved being on the ridge.

As I walk the property, my mind wanders to days of old. The hills, the creek and the pure beauty of this place. The creek isn’t big, nothing you can’t walk across, but to me, it’s bigger than life. The house still stands, but is in rough shape. Forgotten in time I guess. As I gaze at the house I think to myself, “Doesn’t anyone know what this house means? The significance of who came from here and was born within those walls?” I guess some things just get passed by and forgotten. It’s very easy to see where the soul and emotion came from in the music of the Stanley Brothers.

If you are ever in the area of Stratton Virginia, tucked back at the end of an old country road, you will find an old house still standing with secrets and stories forever burned in its walls. The birthplace of Carter and Ralph Stanley.