Bluegrass and Old-time Music Legend Ralph Stanley: The Last Hillbilly

Ralph Stanley, now 82, has been singing and playing professionally since the '40s, but the music he performs now is not radically different from what he grew up playing and singing with his brother, Carter, in the Stanley Brothers band. He doesn't label it bluegrass, although there are similarities. Stanley's sound—he calls it mountain music or old-time—predates bluegrass. There's nothing corn pone about this hard, starkly beautiful music, nothing manufactured. Some of it is gospel, and there are strains of the old murder ballads that came over from England centuries ago, and all of it is grafted onto a style as lean and hard as a winter wind in a graveyard. In his wonderfully absorbing autobiography, Man of Constant Sorrow(written with the help of Eddie Dean), he recalls the day Carter, just a teenager, got his first guitar, a mail-order instrument from Montgomery Ward: "An instruction manual came with the guitar, but Carter threw it away. Books and formal training wouldn't do it any good; it just don't apply to the style of music in the mountains. Old-time music and old-time singing ain't something somebody teaches you in a class. It's bred into you; it comes out of the way you live." (Article continued below...)

The world that Stanley evokes is fast fading. It's neither an insult nor a joke to call him the Last Hillbilly. He doesn't mind the word, he says, although now he's proud to be called Dr. Stanley, in acknowledgement of the honorary degree he received from Lincoln Memorial University in 1976. In his singing, songwriting, and playing, you hear the sounds of a world gone by, and you hear it plainly in the wistful tone of this account. "We were the last generation from these mountains to live from the earth," he says. "It was a hard life and there was a lot of suffering. But the music we made couldn't have come from any other place or time. The suffering was part of what made the music strong, and I reckon that's why it's lasted … What's real doesn't die."

Bluegrass and old-time music, like the blues, do not suffer from a lack of proficient practitioners, but in homegrown music, hot licks and slick harmonies always take a back seat to experience and a sense of place. Writing teachers coach their students to "write what you know." Stanley has been playing and singing that way all his life. The hardship and poverty that he knew growing up, along with the weather and wildlife, what he wore and what he ate—all of that bleeds through every syllable of his songs. In a world where modernity continually whittles the edges off of regionalism, where the city and "the sticks" resemble each other more by the day, Stanley has stubbornly made his sound even more ancient—and improved it in the process. "All my men, even as far back as the days of the Stanley Brothers, come from pretty close by where I'm from and still live," he says. "It's not just ones from the North that don't fit in. It's anywhere outside Clinch Mountain Country [in southwestern Virginia]. With a man from another area of the country, well, he wouldn't speak his words like we do. He wouldn't phrase things the same way, and so he wouldn't be as easy to play with, and music's tough enough as it is." As a result, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys still sound like they're from somewhere, in the best sense. There's nothing homogenized about their music. It's distinctive and—this is a compliment—as old as the hills.

Man of Constant Sorrow is an invaluable book. We never had an autobiography from the late Bill Monroe or Hank Williams. Stanley is the only giant of early country and old-time music to tell his story, and it is fascinating, from his mountain origins all the way to the Grammy Awards. Stanley got famous late in life, so most of his story is the story of all scuffling musicians—late-night car rides of several hundred miles to make a performance in some small-town theater or schoolhouse, writing songs in the front seat, making records for little labels, waiting years for recognition beyond a small, devoted cluster of fans. There's some deep sadness in this tale, especially in the passages concerning Carter's death at 44 after a short life of heavy drinking. But sadness is only one of the notes struck. (In this regard, the book's title, taken from the traditional song that Stanley more than any other singer has made immortal, is slightly misleading: he personifies sorrow when he sings that song, but he's got a large repertoire.) There is considerable humor, too, as in the story of Big John, a barber in Bristol, Tenn., who asked an unsuspecting Stanley if he wanted "the regular." When Stanley said he did, "Big John proceeded to wet down the side of my head behind my ear with some sort of lotion, and then he stood back and I smelled butane and I felt a flash of heat and I realized he'd lit my hair on fire." It turned out that Big John didn't use clippers or a razor. He just singed the hair off. "I've been around the world," Stanley says, "and I've never seen a barber anywhere use fire except Big John."

Strangers to the music of Ralph Stanley got a taste of it at the 2002 Grammy Awards, where he sang his a cappella version of "O Death," the song from O Brother, Where Art Thou? for which he took the best male country vocal award that year. His voice was like an icy finger on every heart in the room, and it was nothing like anything else you heard that night. This book may not be quite the equal of one of Dr. Ralph's great vocals, but it's fashioned with the same intelligence, wit, and respect for hard truth. You've never heard anything like this story either, but if you care anything about great American voices, at the microphone or on the page, you won't miss it.