Originally published in the Brown County (Ind.) Democrat, October, 4, 2006.
James Shelton is standing behind the band shell at Bill Monroe Music Park in Bean Blossom, trying to clear up a misconception about his boss of 12 years, the western Virginia musician Ralph Stanley.
Don’t be fooled by the 79-year-old’s mournful, old-fashioned mountain music, Mr. Shelton says.
He is not a man of constant sorrow.
“He’s got a real sense of humor,” Mr. Shelton says. “It’s real dry. He might not laugh, but if you watch his eyes, you’ll see a twinkle. Ralph laughs with his eyes.”
Newcomers to Mr. Stanley’s music might take him for a somber man—many listeners heard himfor the first time on the soundtrack to the 2000 film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Mr. Stanley sang an a cappella rendition of the traditional dirge “O Death,” winning a Grammy award for the first time at 75.
But here in Bean Blossom, at the Bill Monroe Bluegrass Hall Of Fame and Uncle Pen Days Festival, most fans are not newcomers—they are bluegrass veterans. Many have seen Mr. Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys play here numerous times—Mr. Stanley said he’s visited every year but two since Bill Monroe began the festivals in the 1960s.
Before his show Saturday, September 23, Mr. Stanley was in good spirits, judging by his eyes. He sat quietly backstage while his son, Ralph Stanley II, led warm-up songs in the crowded room. His grandson and mandolin player, 14-year-old Nathan Stanley, was somewhere nearby.
Mr. Stanley drank coffee sweetened with honey—to clear his throat, a friend explained. When his band took the stage he waited behind. They played a number and he watched from the side. Then, slowly, he walked out to join them.
For the first two songs, Mr. Stanley did not play or sing. He introduced the songs and stood quietly as the band played, shorter than all of them, his hands folded.
On the third song he lent his tremulous voice to the harmony, “decorating” each note, as one festival-goer put it, by hitting notes above and below it.
Most bands that play the park’s several bluegrass festivals owe a heavy debt to the style Mr. Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys pioneered in the 1930s and 40s. But Mr. Stanley’s sound harkens back even further, to the Primitive Baptist churches of his childhood. He recorded with his brother Carter as the Stanley Brothers, then continued on his own after Carter’s death in 1966.
The Stanley sound has always included strong religious themes and minimal ornamentation. At home in Coeburn, Virginia, Mr. Stanley’s Primitive Baptist congregation sings with no musical instruments.
Judy McCulloh, a folk music scholar and longtime fan at the festival, said the style can wield a surprising power.
“The voice was it,” she said of the traditional sound. “The voice had to create the meaning; it was the melody and the harmony and all there is.”
Mr. Stanley himself would rather call his music “old-time” or “mountain soul” than bluegrass, he said in his tour bus before the show.
“The old-time music’s just more down to earth, more natural,” he said. “Bluegrass is polished just a little bit and old-time music’s just the way you put it out. I sing it natural—I sing it the way the good Lord gave it to me.”
Never was that natural sound more clear than when he sang “O Death,” accompanied only by the wind shaking the trees above the lawn. His band members left the stage or stood reverently in the back. Mr. Stanley’s voice wavered above and below the melody on the song, a plea for Death to “spare me over ‘til another year.”
Speaking before the show, he was less solemn: “I’m thankful the good Lord blessed me,” he said. “I’m 79 years old. He blessed me on the road so I haven’t had any accidents. He blessed my health.”
Of his twice-a-year visits to Bean Blossom he said, “It sort of seems like home, I’ve been here so much.”
On stage he continued to sing harmonies, letting the rest of the band—Mr. Shelton and Ralph II on guitar, Nathan on mandolin, Steve Sparkman on banjo and Jack Cooke on upright bass—carry the leads.
Before his final song, Mr. Stanley explained that after decades of banjo playing, arthritis had left his fingers too stiff to play much anymore. “But I try anyway,” he said.
He then lifted a banjo and led the band into an unnamed medley, strumming in the claw-hammer banjo style that predates typical bluegrass picking. He punctuated a solo by Mr. Brown with sharp, blasting chords, then tore into a furious solo of his own, earning the crowd’s loudestapplause of the night.
“Somebody stop me,” he said dryly, drawing the song to a close.
He nodded, his eyes surely smiling, and walked off the stage.