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Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and a farewell tour that makes it tough to say goodbye
by Mark Guarino
Ralph Stanley is synonymous with American bluegrass music, first as the tenor harmony partner with his brother Carter in the Stanley Brothers, and then later, as a solo performer with the Clinch Mountain Boys.
Stanley was raised in southwest Virginia, where he still lives. For a 20-year period between 1946 and 1966, the Stanley Brothers became one of the first, and most successful, bluegrass bands of their time due to their mournful sound of their harmonies, and the sophistication of their playing. Ralph’s primitive vocal sound made him a sought-after vocal partner for dozens of artists, from Bob Dylan to Dolly Parton, but he found his widest audience in 2000 following the Coens hillbilly comedy “Where Brother, Where Art Thou?” that featured his music and earned him a Grammy.
He is now in his 67th year of performing with his Clinch Mountain Boys and will soon release a new album: “Side by Side,” a collection of new and traditional songs by the elder Stanley, A.P. Carter, Ernest Tubb, and others, and sung with his son, Ralph Stanley II.
“We have about two inches of snow right now,” he said this week from his farm, located about six miles from his childhood home. “I used to raise cattle and keep horses. I don’t do much of that now. But I still like to live here where I was born and raised.”
What follows is a transcript of our recent conversation.
Q: This current tour is billed as a farewell. Is that true?
A: I had planned to retire after this year and I reconsidered and I’m not sure whether or whether not. I might not. I didn’t know how my health would be. I’m 87 years old. And I didn’t know if I would be able. So I decided that I would just wait until it happened.
Q: How is your health today?
A: I feel good. About as good as ever. When I’m feeling good, which I always have, I enjoy singing.
Q: What did you bring to your banjo style that others hadn’t before?
A: I don’t know really. I just played the way I feel it and my own sound and the way I play it is mine. I didn’t try to copy anybody. I learned the three finger roll later on, but I just learned it from others. But I didn’t want to sound like anybody. I wanted to play with three fingers but I wanted it to be my style.
Q: Bill Monroe was your contemporary and Carter later joined his band for a brief period. How competitive was the Stanley Brothers with Monroe?
A: We always got always along with Bill Monroe fine. We were good friends and played shows together. I don’t have anything to say except something good about Bill Monroe. I have my own sound. When people heard me they knew who it was, know what to expect at a show.
Q: When “O Brother” came out, you suddenly played to new audiences in large concert halls and were all over television. What did it do for you at the time?
A: It was just like going out and playing another show. Playing another show, meeting new people. I did like that movie and I think it helped me a lot and helped me get better known and everything. New fans, you know.
Q: You have one of the most distinctive voices in American music.
A: So far I think I’m singing better today than I did all through my life. It’s good, you know, as ever. I don’t think I slipped any way in my voice, maybe I got a little higher.
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: Just the good Lord’s will. I give Him all the credit.
Q: After performing them for nearly 70 years, which songs are your favorite or mean the most to you?
A: “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Pretty Polly,” “Little Maggie.” I like to sing them like I always did, but do it better if I can. I hope I don’t play it long enough to do bad with it; I don’t want to do that. So when it gets to where I can’t do it, I’ll be ready to say bye with it.
Q: What are your plans this year? What do you feel you still want to do?
A: It just depends on my health. I just want to keep doing this like I’ve done for years. As long as I’m able and can. And do it as good as I can. Up to now, it hasn’t slipped any, I think it’s just as good, maybe better.
Q: When your brother died, did you feel comfortable as a bandleader?
A: It was different. My brother Carter, he did most of the emcee work and publicity and all of the talking and everything like that. I had to get myself used to that. Which I’ve done my best and I think I’ve done all right.
Q: You were on the King Records label with none other than the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
A: We did a song called “Finger Puppet Time,” the Stanley Brothers, and I believe James Brown did it first. He was there at King Studios when we recorded that and he did some of the finger popping on our record. He was fine.
Q: What do you do when you’re not on the road?
A: When I know I don’t have to get up and do a show, I stay relaxed and don’t have nothing to worry about. I try to enjoy myself by doing things I like to do. I still think about the music but I think about the other things too.
Ralph Stanley and His Clinch Mountain Boys play 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave. $42/$40. oldtownschool.org.