Saturday, May 9, 2015

Jeff's Corner - Ralph Stanley at Ozark Folk Center

If you were lucky enough to be in Mountain View, Arkansas, on November 7, 1987, you would have had the opportunity to hear one of the greatest guest appearances at the Ozark Folk Center. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys swept into the auditorium and played their music until it bounced outside and covered the hills and valleys of the Ozarks. If, like me, you were not one of the lucky few who witnessed these concerts, you can listen to the unreleased live recordings at the Arkansas History Commission where they are part of the Ozark Cultural Resource Center Collection of live performances from the Ozark Folk Center. 

Ralph Stanley was born on February 25, 1927, at McClure, Virginia. He formed the Clinch Mountain Boys with his older brother Carter Stanley in 1946. They were later signed by Columbia Records as The Stanley Brothers.  

In 2000, Stanley was famously featured in the film, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? in which he performed the song, “Oh Death.”   Stanley won the 2002 Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal for that performance on the movie soundtrack

The November 1987 performances began with Art Flatt introducing Ralph Stanley at the Ozark Folk Center: “All the way from down in Southwest Virginia in the Clinch Mountain area. A band, I think this is their fortieth year together. . . .They were there when bluegrass started. Please welcome Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys!”
During the concert, Dr. Stanley, who received his honorary doctorate from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, in 1976, as well as all the other members of the band, complimented the Folk Center on their facilities and how pretty the country was there in the heart of the Ozarks. Several of them made sure to brag on the bass fishing in Stone County, and how happy they all would be for all the people in the audience to “talk to the right people” to have them all come back and play as soon as possible. Ralph Stanley commented at one point, “You know, playing in Arkansas reminded me of playing at Petit Jean Park. You know where that is? We played a festival way up on top of the hill.”

"I did spend a week with Wayne Rainey down in Concord,” Ralph Stanley continued. “That’s pretty close, I think. It was about 25 years ago. . . Concord . . . I always wondered where that was. . . .They tell me you turn at the third cemetery on the left as you go out of town.”

Concord, Arkansas, is in Cleburne County, south of Mountain View. Wayne Rainey was a harmonica player out of the Wolf Bayou area of Cleburne County, Arkansas. He performed with the Delmore Brothers after WW II before starting his solo career in 1948. He died in 1993. 

At one point in the set, Ralph lets each of the band members introduce themselves. The 1987 line-up of the Clinch Mountain Boys included Curley Ray Cline on fiddle, Junior Blankenship on guitar, Sammy Atkins on lead vocals and guitar, and Jack Cooke on bass. In addition, Ralph Stanley II performed “Let’s Go to the Fair.” “He’s my little boy, nine years old,” Ralph Stanley, Sr. explained. “He went on stage with me when he was 2 ½ years old. “Dr. Stanley goes on to praise his boy for this being the only day of school he missed so far this year even though he tries to play with his father as much as he can. Currently, all the members of the Clinch Mountain Boys, including Ralph Stanley II, perform with their own bands  throughout the world.

Some of the other songs featured in the performance at the Ozark Folk Center included “White Dove,” “Rank Stranger,” “Clinch Mountain Backstep,” and “Old Richmond.”
In his book entitled, In the Country of Country, Nicholas Dawidoff  maintains that Ralph Stanley has a very different sound than Bill Monroe, even though both are associated with the origins of bluegrass music. “Ralph Stanley has taken care to emphasize . . . that what he sings is actually old-time mountain music – not bluegrass.” Ricky Skaggs, who played with both men, was quoted saying:  

 “When you hear Bill Monroe you hear the fire of the music. When
   you hear Ralph Stanley you hear the high lonesome sound of the
   mountains. . . . Ralph Stanley brings the lonesomeness, the hardness,
   the poverty, the faith of Appalachia to his singing . . . .He sounds exactly
   like where he comes from.”

Dawidoff also writes, “Stanley conspicuously cultivates the aura of a gentle country pastor . . . over the years, Ralph Stanley has self-consciously sought to sound more and more traditional.”

Ralph Stanley, Sr., performed with his grandson, Nathan Stanley, at “Juanita’s” in Little Rock, Arkansas,  on April 18, 2015. The other members of the 2015 Clinch Mountain Boys include Dewey Brown on fiddle, Mitchell Van Dyke on banjo, and Randall Hibbitts on bass. At the age of 88, Dr. Stanley still tours the world with his music, and Arkansans are lucky to be able to see him in person as well as hear the historic recordings housed at our State Archives in the Arkansas History Commission.
Sources available at the Arkansas History Commission: 

Dawidoff, Nicholas.  In the Country of Country, New York:  Pantheon Books, 1997. (ML 3524  .D39 1997)

Wright, John. Traveling the High Way Home: Ralph Stanley and the World of Traditional Bluegrass Music.  Urbana and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. (ML 420 .S8115 W74 1993)