Ralph Stanley's well-written biographical summary states that his voice is of another century (not even the 20th) and another time. While it would be easy to dismiss this as typical PR-speak, one can't help but wonder if the publicity folks may not only have gotten it right about his voice, but about his persona as well.
With the recent passing of Earl Scruggs, Stanley, 85, is perhaps the last of his generation who can speak firsthand about the birth of bluegrass and what being a pioneer in this area was about—hosting radio shows, touring the back roads of Appalachia, and what it once meant to play the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn.
Yet despite having found new audiences and respect through his contribution to the soundtrack for the sleeper hit movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, he acts nothing like the musical icon he is. While his work with his late brother Carter, via the Stanley Brothers, as well as with his later group, the Clinch Mountain Boys, is considered legendary by many in the bluegrass world, the L-word is probably the last thing he would want used to describe himself.
During a recent phone interview from his home in Virginia, there was no sense of pretense or wistful reflections or longing for the good old days. A working musician who continues to play 80 to 90 shows a year, Stanley was not one to wax nostalgic when asked about his remarkable career. Instead, his responses were declarative, heartfelt and to the point. When asked how his sound differed from contemporaries such as Bill Monroe, Doc Watson and Scruggs, he made it clear that he believes the music comes through him rather than from him, simply stating, "I'd say it's because of God. He's given me everything I've got."
As one of the pre-eminent banjo players in bluegrass, his plainspoken response as to how his playing contrasted with Scruggs' was refreshing in its simplicity: "I played two-finger banjo, and he played three. I wanted to change, but I didn't want to sound like Earl. I wanted to sound like Ralph. Eventually, I did play three-finger style, but by then, it still sounded like me."
While on the subject of Scruggs, he was quick to dispel any myths about professional jealousies or unhealthy competition between the two, saying, "Well that's just not true. Earl and me were the best of friends. When Flatt and Scruggs broke up, he came out to Bristol (Tenn.), and we did two shows together. That was one of the great experiences (for me), and I think he's the best. He's done more for the banjo than anybody."
Although it's been almost 46 years since the death of Stanley's brother and playing partner, Carter, the bond he still feels with him was evident when he talked about their relationship, both professional and personal. "Playing with Carter, that was 100 percent! You can't beat brothers together. They do everything alike and automatically do things together."
On a more somber note, he recalls, "Carter passed when he was 41. Let's just say he had some bad habits and got into some things he shouldn't have. After that, I just kept on doing the best I could. ... I had a lot of people (come into the band), and I showed them how to use their voices to get the sound I wanted." Still, you could tell, despite of all his later success, it was never the same.
While the transition from the Stanley Brothers to Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys may not have been seamless, it did endure. Curiously, Stanley feels he received no benefit from the early-1970s bluegrass revival when Doc Watson, Scruggs and many other bluegrass-pickers of that era were recruited by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to make their groundbreaking album Will the Circle Be Unbroken. "I didn't think much of it, really. For me, it was just another album."
The same, however, cannot be said about O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its mega-hit soundtrack, which earned Stanley a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal in 2002. "Well, that certainly helped me to become more popular with so many people who hadn't heard of me. That's the way I got exposed."
While others might revel in this kind of good fortune, Stanley remembers it all as just another session. "T-Bone Burnett (the movie's soundtrack producer) called me. I didn't know him, and he asked me to come to Nashville to record that song ('O Death'). I recorded it, and he liked it real well. At the time, I didn't think that much about it. I was surprised."
Stanley and his band, which includes his grandson Nathan, are currently touring in support of his latest album, A Mother's Prayer. While the banjo, violin and guitar work all help to identify this as another great bluegrass album, its lyrics and tone more clearly define it as gospel. "I see all of them as gospel songs," Stanley says. "I think almost all of them talk about Jesus or the Bible."
As for the title song, he has clearly identified this as one of his favorites. "I did a good job singing there. I put all I could into that, maybe more than any other song I've ever sung. You know, you can put more into some songs than others. I didn't rehearse; I just got it and sang it, and that's the way it came out."
Regarding what people can expect from his show at the Rialto, he says, "I'll guarantee them a good, clean show right out of the old home place! Nothing fancy, but doing it natural."