24 Jun Katie Laur’s Tribute to Ralph Stanley
Tribute to Ralph Stanley
Open a glass of good champagne (or even a cold Mountain Dew) and raise a toast to Ralph Stanley, who died yesterday at the age of 89. He was the last of the great ones, the Fathers of Bluegrass. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs are gone; Ralph’s older brother Carter died of cirrhosis of the liver back in the 1960’s; and Bill Monroe has warbled his last yodel long ago.
The Stanley Brothers were from southwestern Virginia, children of a musical mother who taught Ralph to play the banjo early on and encouraged her sons’ talents. When they started playing music, they were the original road warriors. They played their gigs and drove all night in old cars with the big bass fiddle tied to the top. Try sleeping like that with five other people in the same car, and you’ll get some idea of what real misery is — but they were young and they had no other way to earn a living. It wasn’t much of a living – they had to work in factories and service stations in the day from time to time. It was more money than they had seen back in Norton, Virginia in the claustrophobic shadow of the Clinch Mountains.
Ralph played road gigs for most of his life. He quit recently and turned the band over to one of his relatives, and we all knew it wouldn’t be long. I have the complete Bear Family recordings of the Stanley Brothers and then of Ralph on his own in my frequent play shelf at WNKU. I don’t have the original box the records came in, so I don’t have the liner notes or the index of tunes, but I have a simple formula. I just put a CD on the player, take a guess at a number and “mash the buttons.” It’s always a surprise, and there is not one cut that is bad. All of them are important to the history of bluegrass music, and you can have a lot of fun guessing who the back-up players were. Ralph was one of the giants of early American recorded music, and like Bill Monroe he had the work ethic of an old grey mule. He was awarded an honorary Ph.D. by Harvard or Yale, and took to being called “Dr. Ralph” in his later years.
Thank you, Dr. Ralph for a fascinating career.
– Katie Laur, WNKU host of “Music from the Hills of Home”
To hear Katie’s show honoring the late Dr. Ralph, mash this button: http://wnku.streamon.fm/music-from-the-hills-of-home-tribute-to-ralph-stanley-pl-96