|Dr. Ralph Stanley|
Back in 1998, I was fortunate to go to Poppy Mountain Bluegrass Festival with some college friends. My main mission – to meet Ralph Stanley. I got to see the frail looking man in a suit, a roll of money nestled in his front pocket, sitting at a merchandise table. He would talk to anyone that wanted to talk and sign anything that he had for sale. I was able to purchase a cd, shake his hand, and tell my friends that I got to meet Ralph Stanley. Later on, he would stand up on the stage with his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, to sing pure Appalachian gospel and bluegrass tunes that resonated among the crowd.
A couple of years later, I continued to travel to bluegrass festivals in the summer and write more for the college newspaper on music. I became friends with guitarist, James Alan Shelton, who allowed me to do an interview with Ralph Stanley. In the summer of 2001, it was blazing hot at the Shriners Bluegrass Festival in Olive Hill, Kentucky. It would be the first interview that I would conduct with someone in music and it was with Ralph Stanley. I was doing quite a bit of research on bluegrass music for papers and presentations in college. The movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou” was a hit on the silverscreen and bluegrass saw a resurgence of listeners and fans. We spoke about the connection of bluegrass and movies. Needless to say, I learned quite a bit from Mr. Stanley that day. Ralph, along with the Clinch Mountain Boys, all signed the coversheet of one of my research papers, much to my surprise. I did get an A+ on that particular paper.
Later on, Ralph Stanley would perform at Renfro Valley Entertainment Center over the years. James Alan Shelton said I always had a standing invitation to come out and see them. I took him up on that offer one cold December evening when they played in the Old Barn. Afterwards, Ralph Stanley would sit at the merchandise table shaking hands, signing autographs, and greeting fans. He would sign my mandolin that is now hanging on the wall at my house.
Many fans can tell you that seeing Ralph Stanley sing put a haunted eerie feeling over the crowd. Everyone would be silenced by the reverend vocal style of Ralph Stanley booming through the speakers. It didn’t matter what music style you liked, but you would easily turn your heard and listen to what he would sing. It is rare to see someone on stage take command with performing the traditional Baptist hymns.
Appalachian music and heritage has always been strong through Ralph Stanley. He embraced the mountains, the people, and the music. For 70 years, he stood on stage performing, with most of those years accompanied by his clawhammer banjo picking. The skies are weeping in the mountains of Virginia as we say goodbye to the legend that passed away on June 23, 2016 at the age of 89.