The Long Road to Carter Stanley’s final performance

Gary Reid has shared this detailed remembrance of Carter Stanley’s last show on October 21, 1966, to which we alluded yesterday. Here he provides some historical perspective on the upcoming 50th anniversary of Carter Stanley’s passing, and that final performance with The Stanley Brothers.

Carter StanleyBob Artis noted in his book Bluegrass that “the passing of Carter Stanley marked the first death of a major figure in the field of bluegrass music.” It’s hard to imagine that this coming December 1st will mark 50 years since his passing at the young age of 41. Carter’s last time to ever appear on stage occurred a scant six weeks prior, at a tiny grade school in the eastern Kentucky town of Hazel Green. The Red River Valley Elementary School provided the locale.

As a tribute to commemorate the occasion, a performance of Gary Reid’s one-man play A Life of Sorrow – the Life and Times of Carter Stanley will take place at the Red River Valley Elementary School on October 21, 2016 – exactly 50 years to the day after Carter’s final performance. Show time is at 7:30. As a prelude to the play, a selection of Stanley Brothers songs that were likely to have been sung and played at Hazel Green 50 years ago will be performed by students and staff of the Hazard Community & Technical College (HCTC) Kentucky School of Bluegrass & Traditional Music program.

Students Tanner Horton (lead guitar) and Jordan Jenkins (banjo) will be accompanied by director Dean Osborne. Playing bass will be Scott Napier who will also be reprising the role of “Big Wilbur,” a comedic character in the Stanley band that was portrayed by the recently-deceased Melvin Goins. In fact, the 1960s vintage stage costume of Big Wilbur will be worn by Scott as part of the October 21 tribute. Napier, an instructor at HCTC, was instrumental in adding and coordinating the musical precursor to the A Life of Sorrow performance at the Red River Valley Elementary School.

It was a busy time in October of 1966 leading up to the show in Hazel Green. The rigors of the road were taking their toll on Carter Stanley, who was not in the best of health. A recent letter to the editor in the October 2016 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine contained the memory of a fan that saw the Stanley Brothers in concert in July of 1966 in nearby Neon, Kentucky. Upon following Carter to a water fountain during an intermission, the fan noted that as Carter leaned in for a drink he doubled over in pain.

The journey to Hazel Green started on Friday evening, October 14, when the Stanley Brothers stayed in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, at the home of bass player/comedian Melvin Goins. He had been a member of the Stanley band since January. For breakfast the following morning, the group had what Carter called “one of our special dishes… fried salmon cakes and good gravy and cathead biscuits.” From there, the foursome, who also included guitarist George Shuffler, made their way to Wheeling, West Virginia, where they appeared on Saturday evening as members on the WWVA Jamboree. Among the songs performed was a Morris Brothers (composers of the “Salty Dog Blues”) selection called “Somebody Loves You, Darling.” Jamboree manager Mac Wiseman bade Carter to let the folks at their Sunday show know that he would be there the following week with a big program.

Melvin Goins noted that “the place was plum full that Saturday night and Carter… I believe Carter sung the best that I ever heard him sing that night on the Jamboree.  [They] done ‘Single Girl,’ ‘Somebody Loves You, Darling’… seems like he done ‘Sunny Side of the Mountain.’ He acted like he was in good spirits.”

The Stanley BrothersAlthough it was late when they finished up on the Jamboree, the group piled into Carter’s green and white 1966 Mercury and headed three and a half hours due west to Dayton, Ohio. There, they stayed with friends Fay and Homer Elam. Carter’s friendship with the Elams frequently led to his using their names as part of the group’s comedy routines; old recordings of live shows and radio performances are dotted with references to “Dr. Homer Elam” or the “Elam Hotel.”

On Sunday morning, October 16, it was another nearly three hour drive from Dayton to Bean Blossom, Indiana, which was home to Bill Monroe’s Brown County Jamboree music park. Bill’s brother Birch was the manager of the park. The Stanley Brothers were scheduled for two shows; one at 2:30 in the afternoon and another at 7:30 in the evening. Fiddler Curly Ray Cline was advertised to be on the program with them but was unable to attend.

Bob Artis noted that “Carter’s voice was little more than a shadow of what it had been only a few years before, but he sang with the strength and conviction and depth of feeling that characterized everything he had ever done.” In listening to recordings of the Brown County Jamboree performances, Carter appeared to be in good spirits and emceed the entire show, which included several guest spots from fiddler/bass singer Birch Monroe.

As with the night before, Melvin Goins affirmed that Carter was “in good spirits the next day at Bean Blossom ‘cause he told jokes. I was playing bass and doing Big Wilbur. Bertha Monroe (Bill Monroe’s sister)… she cried when Carter left, you know… kissed him. I don’t know what it was but Carter… they liked her, you know, because see, Carter used to work with Bill. Bertha Monroe, she’s a humble woman, you know, and she, I never will forget… she cried when we left that day just like she that she knew that was the last time she’d ever see Carter alive.”

Nothing is known of the next day but the group is reported to have played a show at an unknown location on Tuesday evening. Afterwards they drove most of the night and arrived in Nashville sometime on the morning of Wednesday, October 19. They checked into the Noel Hotel and caught some sleep.

By 11:00 am, Ralph Stanley and George Shuffler had gone to the airport to pick up Norma Fannin, the vice president of their fan club. Club president Fay McGinnis and her husband Roy arrived by car and soon made their way up to the sixth floor to meet with Carter. He was not feeling well and was still in bed. Fay and Roy stayed to visit with Carter until the others returned from the airport. Carter dressed and accompanied the others downstairs for a late afternoon lunch. A brief tour was made of the lobby, which included fan club materials from other performers, before Carter returned to his room. Once there, Carter went back to bed and was kept company by Fay and Roy.

At some point in the afternoon, Fay and Roy left to go to their own motel rooms where they showered, shaved, dressed and then fought Nashville traffic back to the Noel Hotel.

That evening, Carter and Ralph, along with George Shuffler, were the guests of honor at a K-Bar-T Country Roundup banquet. K-Bar-T was a clearing house, of sorts, for various fan clubs throughout the country; they hosted their first Fan Club Convention in Nashville two years earlier, in 1964. Evidently the Stanley Brother Fan Club was registered with K-Bar-T as Fay McGinnis and Norma Fannin were heavily promoting the event and were also in attendance.

At 6:00 pm the doors to the banquet room opened and everyone was seated. Among the other attendees were Ernest Tubb, Buck Owens, Jack McFadden, and West Virginia representatives of the Stanley Brothers Fan Club, Ray and Marvine Johnson.

After dinner, awards were presented to various attendees. In due time, Fay McGinnis presented awards to George Shuffler for 15 years of service with the Stanley Brothers, to Carter Stanley (a plaque in the shape of a guitar), and to Ralph Stanley (a plaque in the shape of a banjo). “To the Stanley Brothers for their 20 years of old-time music – Stanley Brothers International Fan Club 1966.” Ralph was sick with nerves and Carter was blinking back tears.

After the presentation of awards, music was provided by Tubb’s Texas Troubadours as well as by Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys. The Stanleys opted not to perform or to stick around for the rest of the evening’s activities. Instead, they traveled across town to help out in the studio where Roy McGinnis and his partner Sonny Nelson would be making their first recording. Label owner Bob Mooney was there as were banjoists Don Lineberger and Bob McNealy. Ralph sat in the control room to help A&R the session. Carter offered some assistance as well but divided his time talking fan club activities with Fay and Norma.

After the two-song session, the entourage ventured to the Black Poodle on Printer’s Alley to catch the last set of the evening by Bill Monroe. Fiddler Paul Mullins joined Carter and Ralph on stage as guests of Bill Monroe. Eventually, everyone retired to their respective motels.

On Thursday morning, Carter was again visited by Fay and Norma. Still not feeling well, he was in bed for most of the day. At some point, everyone (Ralph, George, Fay, Roy, Sonny, and Norma) left to run errands, which included a visit to Bob Mooney. Fay checked in on Carter later in the afternoon. He was not up to a tour of the city and he bade Fay and the others to go on without him. It was the kickoff day of the annual DJ Convention in town at the Andrew Jackson Hotel. Ralph introduced Fay and others to several of the country music personalities including Chubby Wise. Others milling around included Jimmie Skinner, Jack Cooke, Jim Eanes, and Johnny Bond.

Once back at the Noel Hotel, the group found a hand-written “Do Not Disturb” sign on Carter’s door. Ralph, Fay, and Roy went to Norma’s room to gather her belongings and took her to the airport. The trio arrived back at the Noel around 7:00 pm. Sonny Nelson and George Shuffler had likewise returned from a foot tour of Nashville. Carter asked Ralph to bring him a sandwich from the hotel restaurant on the ground floor. But, after a while Carter appeared downstairs and sat with the others while they ate; Carter ate very little.

After the late meal, Fay and Roy gathered their belongings from Carter’s room. Carter, Ralph, and George saw the couple off from the lobby as the couple prepared for their ride back to Detroit.

On Friday morning, October 21, Carter, Ralph, and George departed from Nashville to make the five hour drive to Hazel Green, Kentucky. Melvin had booked the date for the group, but had not accompanied them to Nashville. The plan was for him to meet the group on Friday night in Campton, Kentucky. Melvin related his recollections of the show that night:

Melvin Goins recreates Big Wilbur with Ralph Stanley and Ralph Stanley III noticed Carter when he got back in on Friday night his color looked awful bad… he just had sort of a white, pale ashy looking color. You can tell when a man ain’t a-feeling well, he wouldn’t let on but I could tell he wasn’t feeling good. So I had ‘em booked at Campton, Kentucky, at the Red River Valley Elementary School. Show time come and we went on the stage and they done three numbers and Carter started bleeding at the nose. I can’t remember exactly what the three numbers was now. I know we done two songs and Ralph done a banjo tune and while Ralph was doing the banjo Carter started bleeding at the nose. Well he turned around and said, “You fellows carry on,” said, “I’ll be back in a minute.” So he walked off the stage and went back in the principal’s office and took some Kleenex and stopped his nose from bleeding. He had a green suit on and some of the spots of blood had got on his shirt. So he never did come back on the stage ‘cause he kept bleeding and I guess he was weak. So me and Ralph and George finished the show out. He never did come back on the stage no more. And so we got off the stage… back in those days these old half dollars that you don’t see any more, I was saving them, you know, and Carter was kidding me about some half dollars. His boy had just went in the Air Force and he was showing us a picture of his boy Carter Lee that went in the Air Force and he said, “Well I hope he does good,” said, “I pulled my hitch” and said “I hope he does as good as I did.” His nose had stopped bleeding and we was sitting around there. They was going to have to go in to Cincinnati and pick up some records at King Records and meet me back at Frenchburg, Kentucky, at the courthouse on Saturday night, the next night. So they just went on and I come on back home to Prestonsburg.

As history has borne out, the next six weeks were not pleasant ones for Carter. The final stages of cirrhosis of the liver led to several extended hospitalizations and ultimately to his passing on the morning of December 1, 1966. A wonderful singer, a gifted writer, and an engaging performer, Carter Stanley’s contributions to the music known today as bluegrass are monumental. While many fans of the music know his name and know of his songs, the man behind the music remains a mystery to many. A Life of Sorrow – the Life and Times of Carter Stanley affords today’s audiences an opportunity to connect with this Appalachian mountain music legend as “he” tells and sings the story of his life in bluegrass and old-time music.

Gary Reid as Carter StanleyFor the folks in and around Hazel Green, Kentucky, the story is to be told – one more time – where time and space have rendered the Red River Valley Elementary School a hallowed place in the hearts and minds of those who love the music most.  As we pause to remember Carter Stanley on the half century mark of his physical disappearance from bluegrass, we are comforted in the fact that his songs and recordings will render his legacy eternal.

Tickets for the October 21, 2016 show are $10 at the door.