A singular voice in bluegrass
By Geoffrey Himes
Friday, Feb. 10, 2012
Ralph Stanley has already won three Grammys, and on Sunday he goes for his fourth. But there are a lot of other great talents bidding for best bluegrass album - Alison Krauss, Jim Lauderdale, Steve Martin, Del McCoury and Chris Thile.
"I guess I don't have a chance," Stanley says with his customary stoicism, "but I'd really like to win this one. I've got some stiff competition, but I've beat some of those country singers before on the Grammy Awards."
Indeed, in 2002 he beat out Tim McGraw, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Lyle Lovett and Ryan Adams for best male country vocal performance for his version of "O Death" on the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" movie soundtrack. But even if Stanley's "A Mother's Prayer" doesn't win, his influence will be heard in whatever album does, because the 84-year-old singer and banjo picker helped create the template for the genre.
"Three groups really shaped bluegrass music," Ricky Skaggs told me in 1999. "Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, the Stanley Brothers, and Flatt and Scruggs. Everyone who came after them was just following in their footsteps. . . . Ralph's still out there 150 dates a year; he's the last of the giants still in action."
Thirteen years later, Stanley does fewer than 100 shows a year, but he's still performing, and he'll be at Hylton Performing Arts Center on Saturday, the night before the Grammys. He will play songs from the nominated album as well as songs he recorded with his older brother Carter as the Stanley Brothers from 1947 to 1966 and songs from his years as leader of Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, who will be onstage with him at Hylton.
The newest songs will not sound all that different from the oldest. "A Mother's Prayer" is devoted to the kind of gospel hymns Stanley sang as a boy at the foot of Clinch Mountain in the southwestern corner of Virginia. His family attended the McClure Church, a Primitive Baptist church nearby.
"It was just an old wooden building painted white," Stanley says by phone from Clinch Mountain, where he still lives. "Maybe 20 to 30 people would come on Sunday; there weren't too many Primitive Baptists around here. They didn't allow any instruments in the church; you could sing, just no instruments. If you've heard my a cappella singing, that's what it sounded like."
"In those Primitive Baptist churches, they might not have enough hymnals for everyone, so they'd 'line' out the songs," adds guitarist James Alan Shelton, the longest-serving member the Clinch Mountain Boys. "The preacher sings a line of the song, and the congregation repeats it after him. We do that onstage sometimes, with Ralph lining out the songs."
Three of the tracks on "A Mother's Prayer" are a cappella, and two are nearly so - only Shelton's guitar accompanies Stanley's voice on "Lift Him Up, That's All" and only Dewey Brown's fiddle on "Come All Ye Tenderhearted." This extreme minimalism puts most of the weight on Stanley's octogenarian tenor. If it's not as supple as it once was, it's more expressive than ever in all its cracked, raspy glory.
"I think one of the most powerful performances on the record is 'Lift Him Up, That's All,' " Shelton says. "You can hear little subtle things that let you know he was feeling it. There's a line where his voice almost breaks from the emotion. It doesn't mess up or anything, but there's a twinge where he's really feeling it."
"I don't put nothing on the song," Stanley explains. "I just sing it the way I feel it. I just open my mouth and however it sounds, that's the way it comes out. I try to do it the best I can, but I just try to feel it. It's got a lonesome sound, and it affects a lot of people when they get hurt over a death."
There's a lot of death on the album. Jesus visits Lazarus in his grave on "It's Time to Wake Up"; babies die in a fire on "Come All Ye Tenderhearted"; Jesus dies on the cross on "He Suffered for My Reward"; and a dead mother is remembered on the title track.
In the middle of the Great Depression, when Stanley was a child amid the rocky farms and dangerous mines of Appalachia, death came unexpectedly. Local music evolved to provide comfort for those left behind - hymns that always promised a better place in heaven but never underestimated the hurt here on Earth.
The "high and lonesome" sound, so often credited to the Stanley Brothers, grew out of that need to acknowledge and respect the pain of tragedy.
"Those old songs don't sugarcoat anything," Stanley says. "You don't hear that kind of singing much anymore, but when I was growing up, it was mostly what I heard. That sound's not spread out everywhere; it's just here in these mountains."
"Ralph's voice is like a pretty piece of wood, as it ages it takes on a patina," Shelton says. "Only age can do that; you can't manufacture it. He sounded old as a youngster, but now you're getting all the experiences he's had on the road. All the losses, losing his brother, losing his mother, all the tragedies he's seen, come out in his voice."
At 84, Stanley knows the days are short before he joins his family on the other side. On the new album, he sings the contemporary hymn "I'll Not Be Afraid" about facing his own death. Stanley plays little banjo anymore, leaving that to Steve Sparkman, who joins Brown and Shelton in leading the band through the patient bluegrass arrangement, never allowing their virtuosity get in the way of the story Stanley tells. "I'll not be afraid," he sings, "when the death angel calls me, when the raging waters of the river I'll see."
"I don't know," Stanley says. "This might be the last recording I make. I have a couple that are finished that haven't been released yet. I've been blessed with holding up so far, but if I felt I was slipping, I wouldn't want to do it anymore, because I want to go down with as good a name as I can."
Whether or not he wins another miniature golden Victrola on Sunday, Stanley is guaranteed to leave this world with "as good a name" as has ever come out of bluegrass. As his fellow Grammy nominees would attest, his singing has often been imitated but, as he says, "I don't think there'll ever be another Stanley sound."