The Norwalk Music festival, now in its 4th year, has a few things special in store this year. Independence Day takes place during the week of the festival and early arrivals will have a front row seat to the town’s fireworks display at the Huron County fairgrounds. Additionally, The Band of Ruhks will be making a rare appearance in the northeast Ohio area and a tribute to Dr. Ralph Stanley is slated to take place Friday evening, July 8th.
Presenting the Ralph Stanley tribute will be hard core Stanley fans/pickers Junior Sisk and Chris Smith. Ferrum, Virginia, native Junior Sisk is no stranger to bluegrass and was raised cutting his teeth on the old recordings of the first generation bluegrass heroes; his love for Carter and Ralph Stanley is evident in his music, and his lonesome mountain voice.
With the recent passing of Dr. Stanley taking place so close to the upcoming Norwalk festival, Smith and Sisk wanted to do something special for their hero. Smith said, “I called Junior one morning and asked him if he wanted to take 20 minutes to do a tribute. Without hesitation he said ‘Yes!’” The two pickers have performed numerous times together on stage and have always picked a Stanley tune or two on their sets. They have talked about one day doing a Stanley brothers tribute CD. Smith will be playing banjo with Sisk during the tribute. Smith noted, “We will pick a few Stanley tunes, tell a few stories and pay tribute to the King of Mountain Soul.” The tribute will take place on Sisk’s last set at Norwalk around 9:30 pm.
Chris Smith, best-known for his note-for-note Stanley style banjo pickin’ and twenty year stint with Larry Efaw’s Bluegrass Mountaineers, has spent almost his entire life studying the music of the Stanley Brothers and Ralph Stanley. Smith related recently, “Ralph was so good to me when I was younger. I studied his banjo playing early on and would make guest appearances with him on stage when he would come to Ohio. Then I wanted to learn the cross-picking style of lead guitar.” In the spring of 1990, during an absence of Ralph’s lead guitar player Junior Blankenship, Chris filled in on guitar. At 17 years of age, performing with Stanley was quite an experience, along with being a Clinch Mountain Boy. An added bonus was getting to perform with his childhood friend Ernie Thacker, who was then singing lead in Stanley’s band. Smith adds, “My ears to this day, have never heard music that pulls at my heart the way Carter and Ralph Stanley have”.
Smith’s love for the Stanleys brought him a new friendship that he cherishes very much. Gary Reid of Copper Creek Records and Chris have become great friends and they both share a mission to keep the music of Ralph and Carter Stanley alive and well. For example, Smith worked with Gary Reid to travel all the way from Roanoke, Virginia, to Akron last year to present his one-man play A Life of Sorrow – the Life and Times of Carter Stanley to audiences in northern Ohio.
The Norwalk festival is a joint production between Chris Smith and Kurt Hickman and is set for July 7-10, 2016. Hickman and Smith have worked very hard to put on a first-class festival that appeals to people of all ages. The on-stage “kids bluegrass performance” was a huge crowd pleaser last year. “I wanted to do something to try and involve kids. Bluegrass is in my heart and in my soul and I thought if I could peak one child’s interest in bluegrass, it would be worth it,” Smith said. Kurt Hickman performs with his band, Harbourtown playing bass. After retiring from banjo with the Mountaineers in 2008, Chris Smith currently plays guitar with his band, Caney Creek.
Chris Smith and Gary Reid contributed the pictures and input to this article. Thanks guys!
Candidpix will be on hand to document this great tribute.