Ralph Stanley Celebrates His 80th Birthday

We are all the richer for this set of remembrances of our beloved Ralph Stanley, contributed by Richard Thompson, just as we are for Stanley’s life-long dedication to bluegrass and Appalachian music. We hope that everyone will read this entire piece.

Ralph StanleyAs Dr. Ralph Stanley contemplates his 80th birthday today (2/25/07), he might have cast his mind back sixty years to when he, with his older brother, Carter, began his career in “old-time mountain music, what they call bluegrass.” Surely as a 20 year old he would never have dreamt that his life would evolve the way it has. A recording career, firstly with Rich-R-Tone then with Columbia, Mercury, Starday, King, Jalyn, Wango, Cabin Creek, Blue Jay, Jessup, King Bluegrass, Rebel, Freeland Records, his own Stanleytone label and then back to Columbia, stretches the whole way through those six decades. In doing so, he has recorded with a wealth of fellow bluegrass and country music artists as well as stellar sidemen in his Clinch Mountain Boys band.

He holds the Living Legend award from the Library of Congress and was the first recipient of the Traditional American Music award from the National Endowment for the Humanities. One of his proudest achievements is the honorary doctorate in music that Lincoln Memorial University conferred on him in 1976. In addition to all these, he has been a member of many top profile tours such as The Legends Of Bluegrass (1987) and Down From The Mountain and made personal appearances at many prestigious venues. He has achieved world wide acclaim with personal appearances in countries as far afield as Japan and the UK, not to mention the terrific universal impact of the Coen Brothers hit film O Brother, Where Art Thou? that has teenagers relishing his music through his rendition of O, Death, which is featured in that film and earned him the Grammy award for Male Country Vocalist, 2002. He has won two other Grammy awards and had several other nominations.

He has a book about him [Traveling The Highway Home by John Wright; University Of Illinois Press]. He has a museum named in his honour in Clintwood, Virginia, on the Crooked Road. He is a member of the esteemed Grand Ole Opry, having joined in January 2000, and as recently as November last year he received the ultimate accolade from the nation in the form of the National Medal Of Arts, presented in the Oval Office of the White House by President George W. Bush.

He has featured in many widely-circulated non-music publications, one of the latest being last November’s edition of Vanity Fair.

He is an American music icon.

A few of his friends and colleagues and a relative speak richly of him on this special day.

Peter Wernick, a banjo player and Doctor, like Ralph Stanley, actually shares his birthday with one of his biggest inspirations. Happy Birthday Peter! Wernick paints a vivid and endearing picture,

“Somehow Ralph Stanley makes me imagine what might result from the union of a wise mountain spirit and an mischievous elf. His voice unabashedly penetrates the centuries, hollering, grieving, crying holy, telling stories, sad and strange. But Ralph is down to earth too — quiet, humble, ready to enjoy a good laugh, someone who loves to entertain and travel with respect in the world of musicians and good bluegrass folks. And that powerful banjo sound as only he could play it!

Forty years ago, I saw him endure his brother’s death, carrying his music on when his fortunes weren’t good. So it’s sweet indeed to see Ralph receive his due during his lifetime, as a powerful, heart-touching, enduring influence on this music.

Happy 80th Ralph! You inspire all of us.”

As Tom Travis indicates below, he is a stalwart on the British bluegrass music scene, from the first generation of British bluegrass guitarists / singers. He has several CD releases of his own with a lot of his recent material being self-penned. Travis brought Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys over to play at the Edale Bluegrass Festival in the early summer of 1991.

“Ralph Stanley has loomed large in my life since I first discovered the Stanley Brothers back around 1960. I had acquired their album Sacred Songs from the Hills, on the Melodisc label and learned what real mountain singing should sound like. This was in the days when Smiley Bowker my banjo pickin’ pal and I were practicing hard to become bluegrass pickers ourselves. I still have a shellac disk containing a recording that we made of the Stanley Brothers’ song Rank Stranger, as part of our attempt, in the 1960s, to secure a recording deal. Listening to Ralph, Carter and the Clinch Mountain Boys all those years ago was like reading Greek mythology, where gods existed somewhere else and were not of this world. The possibility that I would one day meet one of the Stanley Brothers was as likely as me running into Ulysses or Zeus.

Some thirty years later, as the organiser of Britain’s first Bluegrass Festival at Edale in the English Peak district, I realized that I was in a position, enabling me to summon a legendary God down from the mountain ‚Äì not a mountain with which Zeus is identified but one in Virginia USA. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys actually came to play for us. You might think that bringing a deity into your world would diminish its aura and place it among the familiar. Not so with Doctor Ralph. The legend grew and continues to grow and though I have enjoyed his company since I still remain in awe.”

Ron Thomason, the long-time leader of the Dry Branch Fire Squad and arguably the one other person whose vocals bear the hallmarks of the mournful mountain tones that Ralph Stanley epitomizes, played mandolin with Ralph for a brief period around 1969 and 1970. He speaks highly of the character of his former boss.

“Ralph Stanley is one of the best men I’ve ever known. While many know and appreciate his genius, sometimes folks fail to see the great strength of character, high standards, and exceeding moral clarity which Ralph possesses that provide the foundation of his great genius. He has very important in my life, but that does not make me special; he is very important to countless individuals. His music is so important to what is indicative of defining “American” music, that I would argue that without him there is much we take for granted in today’s music that would not even exist.

Certainly one can know, appreciate, and honor his music without knowing the man behind it. But to do so is to miss much of what makes music meaningful. It is the honor and integrity of Ralph Stanley that I most admire and which I have treasured throughout my adult life as a model for how I would like to be. I love his music. I carry the sound of his voice with me even in silence and always as the sound which motivates me and contributes to my own love of music. And I am very proud to be his friend. I truly believe that he is a person to be counted on. I have counted on him since I first met him, and he has never let me down. I can say without compunction that knowing Ralph Stanley has been one of the greatest blessings of my life.

Happy birthday, Ralph; many happy returns. Just keep on keeping on, Dr. Stanley; we all need you.”

Attorney at Law and former guitarist and lead vocalist with the Clinch Mountain Boys, Charlie Sizemore, succinctly credits Ralph Stanley with being a very big influence in his life.

“If I’ve managed to accomplish anything, musically or otherwise, I owe much of this to you, Mr. Stanley. I need not write this here – I’ve told you as much many times.

I’ll be thinking about you on your birthday. And, of course, most any other day.”

Founder member of the New Lost City Ramblers and, later, the Strange Creek Singers, an accomplished singer and folklorist, Mike Seeger has documented and championed the music of Ralph Stanley for many decades, beginning with his attendance at the country music parks like that at New River Ranch, Rising Sun. Seeger sends an open letter to Ralph ……

Dear Ralph,

Your music has meant a lot to me for over the 50 years since I first started following you and Carter around every time you’d play in the Maryland area. It was a thrill then, and since then I’ve continued to enjoy and deeply appreciate your devoting your music to the true mountain sounds. I’ve always felt your mountain-feeling old-time sound as well as your creativity. It encourages a lot of us to want to support your music-making and also to play old-time music ourselves.

I’d like to add something more formal:

Congratulations on your long and productive musical life devoted to your own distinctive brand Clinch Mountain music. It’s been a great pleasure to hear your music over the 55 years that I’ve been a fan and an honor on a few occasions to play music with you.

With deep and long-standing respect,

Thank you,

Mike Seeger

While Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys are away on a three week tour on the west coast, few of Ralph’s family can be with him today. Nevertheless, he is on all our minds as he is of his closest relatives. I think that Jeanie Stanley Allinder – daughter of Ralph’s original partner, his brother Carter – speaks for us all with her last few words.

“If I could be with my Uncle Ralph on his 80th birthday, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2007, this is what I’d tell him: You’ve sure come a long way since that terrible day in December of 1966 and you’re still going strong. You can hold your own with the very best of the best now, anywhere in the world, in any genre of music. My father would be so proud of all your accomplishments since he passed away. I will always wonder what you and my Dad would have achieved together had he lived. There’s just no telling. I know you miss him and we love you. Happy 80th Birthday!”