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Remembering Bluegrass And Banjo Legend Ralph Stanley


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, in for Terry Gross. Singer and banjo player Ralph Stanley, the bluegrass pioneer who has been making records for more than 60 years, died yesterday. He was 89 years old. Stanley first started recording in the late 1940s as the younger half of the Stanley Brothers. His brother, Carter, died in 1966. Starting in 1967, Ralph performed with his group, the Clinch Mountain Boys. And in 2002, two years after receiving the Living Legend medal from the Library of Congress, Ralph Stanley finally recorded and released his first solo album. Today we'll salute him by listening back to a conversation he had then with Terry Gross in 2002. If there's a recording for which Ralph Stanley may be most famous, it's his contribution to the Grammy-winning, platinum-selling soundtrack album of the 2000 Coen brothers' film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Stanley's haunting solo performance won the Grammy that year for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. And, like its title, it's even more haunting to hear 16 years later as part of his obituary. The name of the song is "O Death."


RALPH STANLEY: (Singing) O, death. Whoa, death. Won't you spare me over till another year? Well, what is this that I can't see with ice-cold hands taking hold of me? Well, I am death none can excel. I'll open the door to heaven or hell. Whoa, death, someone would pray, could you wait to call me another day? The children prayed. The preacher preached. Time and mercy is out of your reach. I'll fix your feet till you can't walk. I'll lock your jaw till you can't talk. I'll close your eyes so you can't see this very hour come and go with me. I'm death. I come to take the soul...


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: That's Ralph Stanley from the soundtrack of the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" You have what's often described as that lonesome sound, or, that high lonesome sound. Is that - would that - that describes your sound, but does it describe your place in the world at all? I mean, have you - do you think of yourself as feeling that kind of lonesomeness, or is that just...

STANLEY: Well...

GROSS: Yeah.

STANLEY: That lonesome sound, you can't learn that. That has got to be born and bred in you. And it's gift that God, I think, has given me. And he means for me to use that maybe for some purpose. You know, it might change somebody. I've got many of a letter and a phone call from people saying that that sound, that caused them, you know, to change their life and join the church, and I just sort of believe that gift was given to me for me to use for that purpose.

GROSS: Now, the church that you grew up in, the Baptist church that you grew up in, didn't allow instruments to be played in church. Did you sing a capella a lot in church?

STANLEY: I certainly did. Yeah, they don't - they don't allow music in the church. They don't have anything against music. I'm a member of the Primitive Baptist Church, and they will buy every CD that I have released, but they don't me just to bring the instruments much into the church.

GROSS: Now, what have you always liked about a cappella singing?

STANLEY: Well, you don't have anything to bother you. You know, if you use instrument, why, you have to stay on perfect time - timing. And if you do a cappella - I'm so bad, just wonder, you know, maybe I'll sing one verse this way and one verse another. And if you're doing it a capella, you don't have to keep any time. You can just go out as far as you want to with it.

GROSS: I guess you could bend the notes in whatever direction you want to, also.

STANLEY: Yeah, that's right. Yeah. That's what I like to do.

GROSS: Would you describe the part of Virginia that you grew up in?

STANLEY: I grew up down in the hills of Virginia. I can be in Kentucky in 20 minutes, Tennessee in 20 minutes or in the state of West Virginia in 20 minutes. And it's down in the Appalachian Mountains, down there. And it's sort of a poorer country. Most of the livelihood is coal mining and logging, working in the woods and things like that. Most people has a hard life down that way.

GROSS: And how did your family make a living when you were growing up?

STANLEY: My father was a logger. He cut timber and hauled it out of the woods and had a sawmill. They sawed it into lumber. And, you know, the mines needed things they call timbers and collars and so forth, and they used collars on the railroad track that they put the rails on. And he - that was his occupation, just a sawmill man and a logger.

GROSS: Did he have all of his fingers, or did he lose any of them in accidents?

STANLEY: No, he never did do any of the work. He was the boss so he hired men to do all that. He never did do any of the work.

GROSS: So he must've made a decent living.

STANLEY: Yeah, he was - he did. He was - we were just - maybe just a little bit ahead of maybe some of the - some of the neighbors and the folks. He did well with it.

GROSS: And would you describe the church that you went to? You talked a little bit about the music in it, but what was the church like physically?

STANLEY: Well, it was a little old white building, it had homemade benches in it. And - 'course, it had a stand for the preacher to preach. And way back in the early days, I'd been told - you know, I lined some songs sometimes. And I got that from the preacher, and I've heard that the reason that preacher lined it, they didn't have the money maybe to print a song book for each singer so he would line that song and then all of the congregation could hear the words and join in and sing.

GROSS: I think I'm not familiar with that expression, lining a song. What does that mean?

STANLEY: Well, you give out the words and then sing them. You give out the words, you know, and the people can hear what you're giving out, and they sing that song or that line and they do the same thing again.

GROSS: I see. OK.

STANLEY: Just like - you want me to give you a little sample?

GROSS: Yeah, would you?

STANLEY: (Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.

That's the lining.

(Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I'm found. I once was lost, but now I'm found. Was blind but now I see, was blind but now I see. See, he gave that line out and then they sung it.

GROSS: So even though the church didn't allow instruments - all the singing in church was a capella - when you got an instrument, when you got a banjo, did your parents frown on that or was that perfectly acceptable?

STANLEY: No, they - that was - they really wanted me - my brother and me to. He got a guitar, and I got a banjo. And the only thing that was bad about that, we couldn't do too well at first and sometimes my father would run us out of the house and we'd have to go out in a pasture, field or somewhere - we lived on a little farm - to practice.

GROSS: Because you didn't sound good, you had to practice far away?

STANLEY: Well, he - I guess he was a little nervous. He didn't think it sounded too good, I don't guess.

GROSS: How did you get your first banjo?

STANLEY: My first banjo? My mother's sister, my aunt, lived about a mile from where we did, and she raised some hogs. And she had - her - the hog - the mother - they called the mother a sow - of a hog. And she had some pigs. Well, the pigs were real pretty, and I was going to high school and I was taking agriculture in school. And I sort of got a notion that I'd like to do that, raise some hogs. And so my aunt had this old banjo, and my mother told me, said, which do you want, the pig or a banjo? And each one of them's $5 each. I said, I'll just take the banjo.

GROSS: Who started playing first, you or your brother Carter?

STANLEY: Well, I guess we started about the same time.

GROSS: And he's a couple of years older than you or younger than you?

STANLEY: He was 18 months older than me.

GROSS: Older than you.

BIANCULLI: Bluegrass artist Ralph Stanley speaking to Terry Gross in 2002. He died yesterday at age 89. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2002 interview with Ralph Stanley, the bluegrass pioneer who recorded with the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys and was featured on the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack. He died yesterday at age 89.


GROSS: Now, I have a recording of "Man Of Constant Sorrow" from 1950. Your brother usually sang lead in your recordings...

STANLEY: He always sung lead.

GROSS: How did you end up using this as a showcase for you singing solo?

STANLEY: Well, I did a lot of solos like that, like "Pretty Polly" and "Little Maggie." And I would sing solos and he would sing solos. But when we sang a duet or a trio, he would do the lead and I would do the tenor.

GROSS: Right. Well, why don't we hear this 1950 version of "Man Of Constant Sorrow?" And here it is.


THE STANLEY BROTHERS: (Singing) I am a man of constant sorrow. I've seen trouble all my days. I bid farewell to old Kentucky, the place where I was borned and raised. For six long years, I've been in trouble. No pleasure here on Earth I find. For in this world, I'm bound to ramble. I have no friends to help me now.

GROSS: The Stanley Brothers. That was Ralph Stanley singing lead. Recorded in 1950, "I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow." Ralph Stanley, how do you think your voice has changed since you were recording with your brother back in the early days?

STANLEY: I think - I really think my voice has gotten better in the last two or three years. I don't know why. I've been doing a lot of - a lot more lead singing, and everybody tells me that my voice was better than ever and I agree with them. Maybe I've learned to do more with it. I don't know what.

GROSS: Well, there's a real depth to your voice.

STANLEY: Well, thank you.

GROSS: Do you think you're any less shy about performing than you used to be?

STANLEY: I reckon I am. I'll tell you, when we first started, I was scared to death. I dreaded going on the stage worse than anything. But now I don't - don't care a bit.

GROSS: What were you afraid of? Not that stage fright needs an explanation, but what kind of stage fright did you have? What was your experience of it?

STANLEY: I just - people hearing my voice, a crowd of people. Maybe not singing to suit them or something. Maybe I'd make a mistake or my voice would crack or something.

GROSS: Did your brother, Carter, have the same insecurity or was he more confident?

STANLEY: No, he was more confident. He was very forward.

GROSS: He is the one who did, I think, most of the talking on stage as well as the lead singing.

STANLEY: He did all the emcee work.

GROSS: And did you ever wish that you could share that with him or were you relieved that you didn't have to worry about that?

STANLEY: No, I never did want to do that, but I'd say a year or maybe a couple of years before he passed away in '66, why, we would be on the stage together and maybe singing a song, and when the song ended, he'd just walk off. And I had to come up there and say something or walk off, too. So I would go up and start talking. And I believe he knew that I would be needing to do that someday, and I believe that that's the reason he done that.

GROSS: You think he knew that he was sick and wasn't long for the world?

GROSS: Yeah 'cause he was, you know, he was sick and I think he knew that.

GROSS: He died in 1966. Was it liver cancer?


GROSS: Did you know that he was sick? Did he know that he was sick?

STANLEY: Yeah, he knew he was sick. We had a doctor up in Bristol, Tenn., that we went to all the time, and he liked us. He played the banjo a little bit. And when we moved down into Florida, the doctor came down there one Christmas on vacation, and he had his doctor instruments with him. And he took Carter in his house and examined him. And he told Carter, he said, if you don't quit what you're doing, he said, you won't last another year. And that was the 26th of December, and he passed away the next year on the first of December.

GROSS: So the doctor almost hit it on the head.

STANLEY: He certainly did.

GROSS: When your brother died, it must've really set you into a crisis, both, you know, personally and professionally.

STANLEY: Well...

GROSS: Go ahead.

STANLEY: It did. I didn't hardly want to do - you know, I wanted to carry on, but I didn't know whether I could or not. But I got cards and letters by the hundreds, phone calls telling me, said, please don't quit. We've always supported the Stanley Brothers, and now we'll be more supportive to you because we feel like you might need it. So that, you know, that picked me up.

GROSS: You've had good years and you've had lean years, professionally. What were the most difficult years?

STANLEY: The most difficult years was when - about the time Elvis Presley came out, that rock 'n' roll boom. And that just about crippled everybody. I guess that's the reason that Columbia Records let us go, and there was a lot of entertainers that the record companies got rid of at that time. It just crippled everything except rock 'n' roll.

GROSS: Did you like Elvis Presley?

STANLEY: Well, I - do you mean to hear him? I don't - I don't like that style, myself. I never did like Elvis's singing, but there was millions that did.

GROSS: A lot of people keep - try to stay current and keep changing their repertoire and the kind of instrumentation that they sing with in an attempt to stay current and reach new audiences and so on. And that's not what you've done. You've kind of stuck to what it is that you do. Were there ever periods where people were convincing you that you had to - you had to get more current, you had to sing different songs or have different kinds of musicians with you?

STANLEY: No, I've never thought of anything like that. All that the people tells me that they, you know, they're glad that I'm a-keepin' the same old-time sound I started with. And I believe that's why, you know, I've been in it 55 years and I believe that's the reason I'm here today.

GROSS: Where do you live now? How close to where you grew up, in southwest Virginia, do you live?

STANLEY: I live about six miles from where I was born and raised.

GROSS: Do you have land?

STANLEY: Yeah, I've got some - I've got some land. I've still got the old home place where I have a festival each year. And then I bought six acres about six miles from where I was raised and built a house and live there.

GROSS: Do you have any farm animals?

STANLEY: I've got a couple of horses and got a few cattle. I couldn't hardly get that completely out of my system.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STANLEY: I lose money every year on them, but it's just a hobby I like.

BIANCULLI: Ralph Stanley speaking to Terry Gross in 2002. The Bluegrass pioneer died yesterday at age 89. After a break, we'll visit with lyricist Sheldon Harnick and director Scott Ellis. Their current Broadway musical revival, "She Loves Me" will not only be performed live on stage next Thursday, it'll be streamed live, too. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.