This piece was originally published December 13, 2010. Ralph Stanley passed away yesterday, June 24, 2016 at the age of 89. RIP, Stanley.
Words By John Marble, Photos By Jane Briggs
Dr. Ralph Stanley is the legend in the history of rock music that most rock-and-roll fans have never heard of. To be fair, the 83 year old bluegrass pioneer confesses that he himself hasn’t heard much rock-and-roll, and he doesn’t play it. Yet, his work – and that of a handful of musicians of his generation – is largely credited with laying the musical foundation which would eventually birth American rock. “I’ve heard about that,” Stanley smiles, and coyly admits when pressed.
Sitting backstage at the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Virginia, Stanley brushed aside any fuss about his influence. He gives that “people told me that they plays rock-and-roll” because of the influence of his foundational work. Those people include Bob Dylan – who is quoted as saying that his work with Ralph Stanley has been “the highlight of my career” – and Neko Case, whom Stanley recently collaborated with alongside Elvis Costello and Elton John. And his distinctive down-stroke banjo picking (known as clawhammer, or “Stanley style”) would later be adopted by guitarists such as Neil Young and Eric Clapton.
There are many influences that converged to create American rock-and-roll; especially blues, swing and country music. But, it is the type of music played by Ralph Stanley that historians point to as rock’s main tributary: the mountain music of the Scotch-Irish people who carried it in their travels from Scotland, to Northern Ireland, and onto the mountains of Appalachia of colonial America. It was in those mountains – such as the Clinch Mountains of Southwestern Virginia where Stanley was raised – where it would cradle the bluegrass and country genres, going on to mix with blues, jazz and swing to birth rockabilly and – eventually – rock-and-roll. The mountain music played by Stanley remains the closest link between American rock and its Scotch-Irish roots. Musically, listening to Ralph Stanley is like peering past the horizon of early rock’s Big Bang.
In a career that has spanned more than 64 years, Stanley has remained steady in his strain of bluegrass (more accurately, a pre-bluegrass genre known as either old-time music, or mountain music) offering a clear glimpse into the roots of modern American music. On Saturday, he and his band the Clinch Mountain Boys stopped once more in the Washington area. With no desire to retire, Stanley has stepped back a bit – mostly lending his haunting tenor voice to songs and occasionally joining on the banjo despite the physical challenge presented in playing instruments Stanley style.
Before his show, Ralph Stanley took some time to speak with Brightest Young Things about the time he’s spent in the Washington area over the years, and on the musical influence he has created.
Brightest Young Things: When was the first time that you played the Washington area?
Ralph Stanley: I guess the first time I played around Washington, D.C. was at a place called The Famous. That was the first place I played, I believe. I think that was the first time I played Washington, D.C.
BYT: Do you remember when that might have been?
RS: Oh, Lord no, ‘cause it’s been years and years ago. I always enjoyed playing around Washington, because we always have a good crowd. I’ve never had a bad crowd in this vicinity from here [Alexandria], up to Washington and on to right around Baltimore. They’ve been some good fans.
BYT: In 2000, you were in Washington to accept an honor from the Library of Congress, which declared you a “Living Legend” because your music is so foundational to so many American music genres. What was your impression of being declared a living American legend that year?
RS: Well, you know, I don’t know. I don’t remember! You know, it really thrilled me. I just don’t know how to explain. I was just shocked and, you know, it pleased me.
BYT: You’ve attracted much attention around Washington. President George W. Bush awarded you the National Medal of the Arts in 2006. Even President Obama wanted to meet you.
RS: [Regarding President Obama] Yeah, yeah, yeah, I talked to him. I sorta, I guess, helped him get elected.
BYT: You were greatly credited by political scientists for portions of President Obama’s electoral victory in Virginia. I remember that the radio commercial that you cut for the Obama campaign in 2008 became famous for its effectiveness. A lot of people were talking about that.
RS:A lot of people has talked to me about it too, you know. Some all good, and some bad.
BYT: Well, that’s sorta how politics goes.
RS: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s right! You can’t please everybody, now, can you?
BYT: No, you can’t. Speaking of trying to please everybody, you were musically trained, vocally, in the Primitive Baptist church, which forbids the playing of instruments in worship. Yet, as a child, you built on that vocal training to become one of the most renowned and influential instrumentalists in America. Did you find a conflict there once you picked up the banjo?
RS: They didn’t have any instruments at all. I still go to that church now, and they don’t believe in instruments in the church. But, my brothers and sisters in the church will listen to me. They will come out to a place to see me play. They will buy all of my records and everything, but they don’t believe in bringing that instrument in the church. But, they’ll come and watch me somewhere else. Why that is, I don’t know. It’s bound to be an old tradition, because I don’t see any harm in brining an instrument into the church itself. But, you know, that’s their belief.
BYT: You found a lot of success after the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, for which you won a Grammy in 2002. With that newfound popularity, have the crowd compositions of your shows changed?
RS: I think my popularity doubled, or more after I did work for O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
BYT: And, you’ve continued to work for producer T Bone Burnett after your work with him on that soundtrack.
RS: Yeah, I just did three shows for T Bone a month ago. We did one in Boston, New York City, and one in San Francisco.
BYT: Those were part of Burnett’s “Speaking Clock Revue” where you took the stage with people like Elton John, Elvis Costello, Neko Case and Gary Allman. Those are people not normally associated with your type of music.
RS: Oh, yes. Yeah. We hit real good. We talked and they was…most of them said they were fans of mine and everything. And, of course, there were some of them that I had never heard of.
BYT: Who hadn’t you heard of before?
RS: I can’t say the names. I don’t remember the names right now, but they seemed real happy to work with me.
BYT: Any plans to record with them?
RS: Not that I know of right now. Who knows, but not that I know.
“Ralph Stanley for President” – Washington, DC (photo by Mike A.)
BYT: You did a cover of your song “Lonesome River” with Bob Dylan for on of your duet albums, which he also recently featured on his compilation “Tell Tale Signs.” How did that come about?
RS: I can’t remember. I can’t tell you just exactly how we did get together. But, I was glad, and I think he was glad too that we did meet up and do a record together.
BYT: He was glad. Dylan has been quoted as saying it was, “the highlight of my career.”
RS: I think Bob told me that he turned down twenty interviews that year, and I was the only one that he sat down and did an interview with. And, he said that it was one of his highlights, and it was one of my highlights. And, I was very glad to talk with Bob. I found out that he was a good fan of mine, and that tickled me.
BYT: You have said before that you only like to work with people who are fans of yours, so that helps.
RS: (Smiles) Yeah, that helps.
BYT: Your personal work, and your genre of music – old time music, or mountain music – was foundational to the birth of both country music and American rock-and-roll. Without your music, those genres may have never developed into what they did. Do you have any thoughts on your huge influence on those in country music, bluegrass, and rock-and-roll?
RS: Well, uh, you know I’ve heard about that and I have found out. They’ve been people told me that they plays rock-and-roll and all different types [of music] said that they’ve been influenced. I guess I’ve made it interesting for them. And they’ve told me that they like my type of music and, well, I was glad to hear that.
BYT: Are there any types of music or artists outside your personal genre that you enjoy?
RS: Well now, just to tell you the truth, not really. (Laughs) I have plenty of good friends that I think the world of – and Bob [Dylan] is one of them, and I like his music – but with some others… their music I just don’t care too much about all of it. Some of it I like.
BYT: Well, a lot of people care about you.
RS: Oh, I know.
BYT: Before we go, I wanted to ask you about the recent controversy over bluegrass here in Washington. A couple years ago, public radio station WAMU’s General Manager Caryn Mathes made the controversial decision to discontinue bluegrass and old-time music from it’s weekend programming, relegating it to its high definition frequency and the station’s online broadcasts. What did you feel about that removal?
RS: I was sorry to hear about that. Speaking of WAMU, [bluegrass and old time music DJ] Ray Davis did a lot of work there. I’ve know Ray, I guess for 50 years – 40, or 50 years. And, he plays a lot of my records.
BYT: He’s become an institution in Washington (now broadcasting online and on WAMU’s high definition channel).
RS: I hated to hear of it. I haven’t heard Ray Davis for a real long time, but I say he’s still playing some, isn’t he?
BYT: He is, on WAMU’s high definition station. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?
RS: I’d like to thank the many fans that live in this area, and all around. And, I hope that everybody that hears me will like me. Maybe I could have some that have never heard of me. I’d be glad to hear someone come up to me tonight and say ‘this is the first time that I’ve heard you, and I love you.’”
BYT: Thank you.
RS: Good to see y’all. Take care!