Political turmoil in the first family of bluegrass?

Is there a family legacy in bluegrass music more durable than that of the Stanleys of Virginia?

Not content to rest on the laurels he has deservedly earned as a pioneer in the early days with his brother Carter, Ralph Stanley continues to tour actively at 85 years of age. On top of that, he has brought two new generations of Stanley progeny into the music, with his son Ralph II and grandson Nathan currently pursuing a career in bluegrass music.

Both men have put in time with the Clinch Mountain Boys. Nathan continues, playing mandolin with his grandpa’s fabled band, while Ralph II now performs and records with his own group.

Nathan will spend December of 2012 headlining with the Clinch Mountain Boys in Pigeon Forge, TN following the Grand Opening of the Musick’s Mountain Theater on November 30 with Ralph at the helm. His uncle, Ralph II is on the road as well, touring in support of his current CD, Born To Be A Drifter.

But is there political trouble in bluegrass paradise? Dr. Ralph has long been a supporter of the Democratic party, and famously endorsed Barack Obama in a radio spot that was aired extensively in southwest Virginia during the final days of the 2008 campaign.


20-year-old Nathan, however, would seem to be his own man in such matters, and has released a statement in which he urges his fellow southwest Virginians to support Obama’s challenger in 2012.

“America needs to return back to its roots and be the Christian Nation it was intended to be. We need a leader who is not afraid to speak of his faith, and we all need to put this straight Democrat, or straight Republican mind set out of our heads. The thing to do here, is vote for the best man.

I have several friends who work in the coal Industry around these parts so I’m definitely a Friend of Coal. I’m also Pro life, Pro Israel, and I believe marriage should be between a Man and a Woman only.

The Best Choice for America is to vote for Mitt Romney.”

Is this evidence of a partisan split in the Stanley clan, an attempt on Nathan’s part to set himself apart from the good Doctor, or perhaps a “once-removed” refutation of Ralph Sr.’s previous endorsement?

This may be a story of purely bluegrass interest in the rest of the US, but in areas close to where Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky intersect, a good many families will be discussing the question raised above.

The bluegrass world has been mercifully sparse in its political content, with endorsements and active campaigning a decided rarity. Southwest Virginia (where I reside) has been a notable exception, with the Democratic party aggressively using the culture and symbolism of bluegrass to appeal to this more rural part of the commonwealth. The strategy has been credited with helping elect Mark Warner as Governor in 2001, and earned its author, David “Mudcat” Saunders something of a superstar status in regional political circles in the decade that followed.

“Ralph Stanley for President” shirts and bumper stickers show up in these parts almost every election year, reflecting Dr. Ralph’s tremendous and enduring popularity. Campaign watchers in the swing state of Virginia will certainly be on the lookout for a repeat Obama endorsement in light of Nathan’s Romney statement.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.