Dr. Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys Press Ahead

Charleston City Paper | November 22, 2005
Revered as a giant in the old-time and bluegrass community, clawhammer-style banjo player, arranger, bandleader, and high tenor singer Ralph Stanley, 78, is as dedicated to traditional mountain music now as he was when he first started playing as a boy in his hometown of Stratton in the hilly southwest corner of Virginia.

Through his years with the Stanley Brothers, a duo with his guitar-playing brother Carter, and acoustic combo The Clinch Mountain Boys, Stanley held firmly to the traditional approach to old-time vocal songs and instrumental music and developed his own tightly-wound style and signature "high lonesome" voice.

"We're gonna do our best to put on one of the best shows that's ever been there," he says. "We're gonna play a lot of gospel songs and instrumentals and play a great show for the entire family. We do new and old songs, take requests, and try to please everybody. If somebody shouts out a request and puts one in beforehand, we'll try our best to play it. You know, out of about 200 CDs and long-payer albums, that's about three or four thousand songs, so we'll certainly try."

The current version of the band includes longtime acoustic bassist Jack Cooke, acoustic guitarist James Shelton, banjo player Steve Sparkman, fiddle player Todd Mead, and young mandolin player Nathan Stanley (Ralph's grandson).

"We've got three generations of Stanleys on the stage," says Stanley. "Nathan's 13. He's been with us for a few years and he can play all of it. Ralph II, my son, he's playing guitar and singing a good bit. We've been together a long time. Everybody understands each other. It's a good band. And it's all traditional. If it wasn't traditional, I wouldn't have it."

Stanley remembers cutting his first sides in 1946 with his guitar-playing brother for the Rich R-Tone label "Mother No Longer Awaits Me at Home" backed with "The Girl Behind the Bar." It was the first of several hundred sessions in which he and his colleagues performed reworkings of old standards, spirituals, original pieces, and anonymous old-time favorites.

The recent resurgence of bluegrass and old time music and the younger generation's interest in digging for it can be partially attributed to the success of the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers' 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which featured a Stanley Brothers version of "Angel Band" and an a cappella rendition of "O Death" from Ralph.

"I enjoyed that movie and thought it was a real good soundtrack," he says. "It was the old-timey mountain music, which is what I like."

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