Today is the 85th birthday of Dr. Ralph Stanley, who loomed large and mythological over my childhood. In honor of his birthday, here’s something I wrote when I went to go see him in Boulder last July — about three months after I knew I was leaving Colorado to return to the South, and one month before I actually did it. At the time I wasn’t wholly sure that leaving was the right decision.
to [a friend]
date Wed, Jun 22, 2011 at 8:43 PM
subject once upon a time there was a fellow named dr. ralph stanley
and he played with an Uzbek band
and he did a Tiny Desk Concert for NPR
and he played “Angel Band” with the Clinch Mountain Boys
and he played with his brother back in the day doing old-school stuff such as “Worried Man Blues”
and he is overall kind of a badass and that is the story
Hell is the sturdy keystone of gloomy Calvinism. But not all evangelicals, nor even all Southern Baptists, find spiritual comfort in the damnation of others. If we groan and hang our heads over Pat Robertson and Terry Jones, we might stand up and cheer for Christian splinter sects like the Primitive Baptist Universalists of Southwest Virginia and neighboring Appalachia, who were one hundred years ahead of Rob Bell in banishing the devil from their theology. Known disrespectfully as the “no-Hellers” to their Christian neighbors, they practice the beautiful heresy of Universalism, which holds that all souls originate with God and all return to Him, without exception. Love wins. Never numerous but tenacious in a theologically hostile environment, these mountain Christians hold services characterized by hugging, laughing, crying, and affirming their belief that “people of all creeds, colors, and nationalities will share Heaven with them.” The great bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley is a member of one of their congregations.
We’ve been having daily deluges of near-biblical proportion, this last week. We’re talking two inches of rain in less than an hour, intersections flooded, bars flooded, folks getting stuck in their cars.
One was on its way over Broomfield as I headed up to my favorite Tibetan place for what I am sure is the next-to-last time, while I’m still living here. Given the weather, I thought that maybe the smart money was on skipping my plans, on turning around and going home. I was pretty sure I’d rather. But Ralph Stanley is eighty-four years old.
So I ate my momos and daal, I drank my chai, I got in my car and drove the rest of the way to Boulder in the rain.
I’d checked out the opening act before I headed up there, and I wasn’t enamored — her bluegrass is the generally inoffensive kind. Pretty voice, decent harmonies, gentle breakdowns. Steve Scafidi might have a thing or two to say about her. I don’t have much to say about her. I caught the tail end of her set, most of which was from the lobby of the Boulder Theater.
Which is where I noticed that there was a gathering of gentlemen of a certain age with pristine-white Stetsons, and growing up where and how I did, meaning dragged along by my father with great protest to festival after festival, music barn after music barn, I figured that these men were the serious ones. That’s when I saw Dr. Ralph Stanley sitting behind the merch booth, Stetsoned and mildly blinged in a light gray suit with a shooting-star rhinestone motif. Black shirt. He was small, calm, a gray monolith. He looked eighty-four years old and then some.
The entire reason I came out was that I saw Bill Monroe when I was too young to appreciate what was going on. Bill Monroe died a few years later. I saw Doc Watson when I knew a little more, and his voice from that night at the Variety Playhouse echoes in my memory. I did not pay him the attention he deserves, and I will probably never see him again.
Ralph Stanley has been the name in the house I grew up in. I missed Bill Monroe. I missed Doc Watson. Ralph Stanley is eighty-four years old.
I was not going to miss Ralph Stanley.
What I hated about bluegrass as a kid is that no matter where you were or what you were doing, that banjo and that high tenor and those too-close harmonies would cut through and be loud. Unignorable. Impossible. I had other things to do, other things to listen to, and there was this noise.
The second episode of the first season of Justified opens up with a band of convicts playing a private party. The lead singer has that particular high, nasal tenor that cuts through everything. I heard it and it sent an electrical charge of recognition up my spine: that’s who I am, that’s who we are.
For that real high lonesome sound — and that’s a loaded phrase, with weight and meaning, in the land of my people — everybody seems to agree, Steve Scafidi included, that there’s no beating Dr. Ralph Stanley.
…I got eyes like laser beams
and a voice like Ralph Stanley but deeper
down darker. No more sweetness Ricky.
You are not a bee. There is a broken down
burning house inside the soul and someone
in the window waves. It is me.
This is the band, the sound, that Ralph Stanley built. He will step back and see what they can do.
He sometimes gets a little confused, sometimes repeats himself, sometimes has to sing lyrics off a paper. He told us they were in Crested Butte last night and he had to use oxygen overnight because of the altitude, and he was a little hoarse, and if we could just bear with him he’d certainly appreciate it. He took advantage of the songs without him to suck on cough drops. They helped.
When Ralph Stanley stands alone on the stage, hands clasped in front of him, and sings “O Death”, there is not a sound to be heard in the house.
Ralph Stanley has been the name in the household as long as I can remember.
The question I eventually worked around to asking myself was what do the rituals involved in listening and performing this music say about American culture? One answer I found was that most of the music I love, and indeed the vast majority of American popular music, owes its existence to the South. More than that, most of that music comes from traditionally disadvantaged groups of people. These realizations were my key to falling back in love with the South, because I started doing a lot of reading about American popular music. It turns out that the narrative I grew up with – that we in the South are afflicted by history, that we are all to be pitied by our betters in other places – was a crock. Good things come from the South. Like anywhere else in the country, you just have to know where to look.
I was, and to some degree still am, a Unitarian Universalist.
We have at least a little bit of theology in common. (When it comes right down to it, I, too, am a no-Heller.) And I like the way Hal Crowther describes church services in his denomination. That’s what the church I grew up in was like, too.
Most of my religious beliefs came from my mother, who was the one who joined us up with the UU church.
Tonight I realized that it was my father, with that music, who planted those seeds that the South is a good place that’s worth fighting for. And it started with that real high lonesome sound, with that nasal tenor voice that hits you at the base of your brain and spreads in a way that you cannot possibly ignore.
It started with Dr. Ralph Stanley.
He is eighty-four years old. He still plays a little clawhammer and sings. And sometimes he steps back, small, hands clasped in front of him, and watches the band that he built.
And I have seen him.
It’s for my father’s birthday.
It’s the day classes start at the University of Mississippi.
I can’t fully convey the enormity of what happened tonight, of what it meant to see Ralph Stanley. But what I can tell you is that my faith that I am going to the right place, to do the right thing, is rock solid in a way it wasn’t before tonight.
This is who I am; this is who we are. We are good and we are worth it. Love wins.
And when he said, God bless you, I felt it.