Ralph Stanley sticking to his roots

October 02, 2008|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- Ralph Stanley is known as the patriarch of bluegrass. There is a museum that bears his name as well as a bluegrass festival. Musicians revere him. Banjo players want to pick like him. To this day, there's still no one on the radio who sounds like him.

At 81 years old, Stanley is not about to bow out anytime soon. "As long as I can do the music justice, I'll keep a'pickin' and a'grinnin'," he said during a telephone interview from his Virginia home.

He's been playing bluegrass for 62 years, and still manages to be out on the road at least three times a week. And for how long he's graced the stage, Stanley has never strayed far from the true roots of bluegrass.

At 8 p.m. Saturday, Stanley will perform with the Clinch Mountain Boys at Shepherd University's Frank Center as part of the Appalachian Heritage Festival. "I'm promising a good, clean show," he said.


Stanley was raised in the Clinch Mountains of Virginia, where he still lives today. He and his brother, Carter, were weaned on music. Both of their parents played musical instruments. Their mother played banjo on the old clawhammer style.

Ralph Stanley learned to sing at the Primitive Baptist Church at which he's still a member.

By age 10, Stanley had taken up the banjo, playing in both the clawhammer and finger-and-thumb styles. His brother learned to play the guitar, and the two boys began performing together.

Eventually, the Stanley Brothers started to get noticed. Stanley said he knew when he was 12 that music would be his career.

Stanley and his brother were already playing on the radio in their teens. After a stint in the Army during World War II, Stanley and his brother formed a band. They polished their style and recorded bluegrass staples such as "Man of Constant Sorrow" as well as songs Stanley wrote, such as "Clinch Mountain Backstep."

Throughout the 1950s and '60s, the Stanley Brothers still managed to keep a fan base even as popular music shifted to country and rock 'n' roll. But their partnership ended when Carter died in 1966.

Without his brother, Stanley continued with music and became a bluegrass statesman to the world. In 2000, thanks to musical contributions to the soundtrack of "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?," Stanley found a new following.

"It just brought me a new audience. Lots of young people," he said.

For Stanley the size of the audience doesn't matter.

"When I was young, I was scared to death to perform," he said. "But now it's an everyday routine. It doesn't matter if there's 100,000 people or just 50."

And he's still putting out albums, the most recent being "Old Time Pickin': A Clawhammer Banjo Collection." It includes some of fan favorites as well as tunes not previously released.

As for a legacy, Stanley wants one to be proud of.

"I hope that they said they I stayed true to my roots and never strayed too much from bluegrass," he said, "and that I improved as a musician."

If you go ...

WHAT: Concert of Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys perform during the Appalachian Heritage Festival.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4

WHERE: Frank Center at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va.

COST: $20; $15 for seniors or Shepherd staff; $5 for ages 18 and younger; free to Shepherd students with Rambler ID

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