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.

  • Chris Jones

    Well, the Stanley family certainly won’t be the first family to have political differences. I think it’s always the right of our bluegrass entertainers to speak their mind politically, whether it be Ralph Stanley for the Democrats, or as Jimmy Martin used to do from the stage for the Republicans. I love the music of both men, and those viewpoints don’t affect my feelings about their music in the slightest.

    At the same time, there’s a lot to be said for the mostly apolitical nature of the bluegrass community. We are a pretty diverse group, maybe more so than in other genres of music, and maybe more so than a lot of us even realize, and maybe being blissfully unaware of our differences and staying focused on the music is a good thing. We don’t need more reasons for division among us.

    • I agree completely. Most of us come to music to avoid the turmoil of the “real” world.

      • Dick Beckley

        I would agree with you , John , if not for the fact that politics was not nearly this prevalent in bluegrass circles until, in 2008, Chris Jones, Dr. Ralph, Jon Weisberger and some others recorded a CD, with the proceeds going to the Obama campaign and hawked it to all of us IBMA members by using the IBMA’s e-mail list to try to peddle it to us, and even hosted a live show on the strip in Nashville during IBMA to raise funds for Obama. I didn’t like it then and still don’t like it now. So when I and others stand up and show our support for Romney and the Conservative American way, it’s our right also. I still tend to believe that bluegrass people are 75-80% Conservative and almost none are Socialists. I’m a former Democrat who figured out years ago that the party had abandoned everything I believed in.

        • Mr. Beckley, I understand your post was a few months ago but I loved it and your comment gave me hope. Democrat and Republican aside, it’s more important to me about Conservative versus Liberal. I love Bluegrass Music and have always loved and respected Dr. Ralph but it broke my heart to hear he backed Obama. I can’t separate the person from what they believe. It makes the man. I’m a Christian and could never be a Democrat/Liberal who’s party plank is for abortion, homosexuality and their marriages. NEVER…And I’d like to say, God Bless you Nathan and I agree 100% with your above mentioned comments.

          • Darren Sullivan-Koch

            The beautiful thing about America is that we have the freedom to believe what we want and express ourselves freely, provided that we don’t adversely affect the well-being of one another. I don’t agree with a lot of what you say, but I respect your opinions and the lifestyle you’ve chosen for yourself—and expect that same respect in return.

  • dennis

    Young Stanley makes a lot of sense about party loyalty. We don’t vote for banjo player of the year based on what party they belong too. We vote for the best man “or woman”. We should at least give the office of President the same level of consideration.

  • grasser

    I hope politics don’t ruin a genre that pretty much is silent on political matters. True, everyone is free to speak their minds but I wanna listen to Clinch Mt. Backstep without the image of Obama floating around.

  • Darren Sullivan-Koch

    I remember just a few years ago when Mitt Romney was pro-gay marriage and pro-choice.

    • Darren Sullivan-Koch

      Feel free to “dislike” the facts.

      • Please don’t feel free to hijack a potentially interesting discussion about the intersection (or lack thereof) between bluegrass music and politics with the same stale “your candidate sucks” routine you can find most anywhere you look online.

        • Darren Sullivan-Koch

          Hee hee! Sorry, couldn’t resist. I couldn’t help but find it fascinating that Ralph would vote for Obama twice (in ’08 and ’12), but Nathan would not have voted for the original Mitt Romney as his platform stood when he ran for governer. You’re right: It’s irrelevant to the wider (and much more interesting) debate of politics in bluegrass.

          In fact, bluegrass is something that helps us rise above politics…especially considering that two major hotbeds seem to be in the southeast and northeast, which are usually politically diametrically opposed.

        • grasser

          Oooops,,I forgot to put a “lol” at the end of my post.

  • Brent Sterling

    We need to remember that folks come to hear the music, not political or religious views, unless of course your playing for a rally or religious service. When people pay to hear you, it’s the music they want (and the GOOD jokes. :>)

  • The Stanley Agency

    Nathan Stanley & Dr. Ralph might have diffrent views in polotics but You can sure see and feel the love that is between the two when you are around them.

  • The Stanley Agency

    spelling correction: POLITICS

  • Dick Bowden

    Anyone else see the OLD Black and White video of one of Ralph’s EARLY festivals in the 1970s when he let some candidate get up on stage for a few minutes to make his pitch? I forget if he was running for US Congress or Virginia state legislature. How times have changed! His big roaring “sign off” line was “Elect me and let’s get us some ROADS up in here!”

  • Ivor Trueman

    I haven’t seen the video Dick, but I wonder if he did “If I Lose / Kitten & The Cat”…


  • grasser

    Everybody in this part of the world knows Ralph has had an interest in politics for a long time. Doesn’t matter what party he is to me as long as he still plays Rocky Island like he always has.

  • ConniePursley

    Ken Turnmyer at Vesco in Hickory is a Ralph Stanley and Obama fan..