We find the spirit of Dr Ralph Stanley
Ralph Stanley Museum
GrassRoots Music Tour
Images: Jim Jacob
Words: Rob Dickens
The Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Centre is in the heart of the town of Clintwood, Virginia. The museum combines the career of Stanley (memorabilia and audio/visual displays), the mountains which framed his style, together with an historical journey of traditional mountain music. It is the Western-end stop on Virginia’s Crooked Road Heritage Trail.
Ralph Edmond Stanley was born, reared, and lived in rural Southwest Virginia in McClure at a place called Big Spraddle in Dickenson County, close to the Kentucky State line.
Music, hard terrain and religion are still intertwined here. Stanley’s mother played banjo, and his father sang old-time songs around the house and in church. Stanley sang at an early age in church.
With his brother Carter (a year and a half older), the siblings began playing together, Carter on guitar and singing lead, Ralph playing banjo and singing tenor harmony. In 1946 they formed the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys and joined the Farm and Fun Time radio show in Bristol, Tennessee. The next year they recorded for the small Rich-R-Tone label and later Columbia, a relationship that lasted from 1949 until 1952. These classic sessions defined the Stanleys’ own approach to bluegrass and made them high-profile and successful artists.
Ralph and his band toured continuously, appearing at the growing number of bluegrass festivals and folk music concerts, and recorded important gospel and bluegrass albums. Ricky Skaggs played mandolin with the Stanleys as a teenager. In 1965 they played at the first ever multi-day bluegrass festival and the following year they toured Europe in a festival of American folk and country music.
Carter was a heavy drinker and, after his death at the age of 41 in 1966, the less outgoing Ralph was hit hard. He ultimately decided to carry on and, due to the selection of a succession of fine lead singers and guitarists such as Larry Sparks and Charlie Sizemore, Ralph’s Clinch Mountain Boys maintained their standing as one of bluegrass’s founding bands.
In 1976 he was awarded an honorary doctorate in music by Lincoln Memorial University and thereafter enjoyed being addressed as “Dr Ralph”. Following the death of Bill Monroe in 1996, Ralph Stanley became the leading name in bluegrass and continued to find new audiences, collaborating with many, more contemporary, admirers such as Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris.
His cameo in the Coen Brothers’ 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? expanded his audience again. His voice is heard in the chilling a cappella style (he was the first to use that technique in bluegrass music) of “O Death”, as is his arrangement of “Man of Constant Sorrow” which threaded through the movie, and it closes on another Stanley recording. “O Death” won Stanley a Grammy in 2002.
Ralph Stanley is a Bluegrass Hall of Fame member and the Grand Ole Opry, he also has received awards from the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Stanley died in 2016, survived by his third wife Jimmi, whom he married in 1968, by two sons, Ralph II and Tim, two daughters, Lisa and Tonya, and seven grandchildren.
Ralph Stanley II is keeping the tradition going with gusto, with two Grammy nominations on previous albums he recorded with Rebel Records. In 2002 he earned his first Grammy along with his father for their collaboration with Jim Lauderdale. Ralph II has proven to be an accomplished songwriter and has six solo albums under his belt, along with the highly acclaimed duet album with his father titled Side by Side.
The Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Centre was opened in 2004. It is a well-presented and fitting tribute to the legend that is Ralph Stanley, his community and the indomitable mountain spirit. A visit here is highly recommended.
Special thanks to Ralph Stanley II for taking the time out to provide great observations and first-hand insights. Check out his website and tour dates HERE.
We would recommend the Sleep Inn for an overnight stopover and La Casa Mexicana for dinner.
We find the spirit of Dr Ralph Stanley