Updated: Feb 25
Photo by Kirstie Newkirk
The first time I heard Ralph Stanley was on the Oh Brother soundtrack. I was 15 when the movie came out and had been playing guitar for a year - I wasn’t into bluegrass yet. That was a long way off.
I was an Indiana farm kid who was into folk music without knowing what that even really meant. Mom says I was playing harmonica at 2, singing a large repertoire of songs at 3, strumming autoharps at 6. I sang along with Wee Sing Fun n’ Folk constantly, and when I got older Dad introduced me to the Dirt Band’s Circle albums.
So hearing Ralph sing “Oh Death” was an awakening. It gave me nostalgia for a life I’d never lived and a place I’d never been. It was raw, primal, mountain singing and I knew it, even though I had no way of knowing it. I could just feel it. I didn’t even know then about his banjo playing or his work with Carter or the band. It was just his singing that grabbed me.
Ralph Stanley remained a background influence on my awkward musical awakening. I remember leafing through the Bluegrass Fakebook ten years later with my friend, looking for songs we could try to play and sing with my new mandolin, and noticing how Ralph or The Stanley Brothers were credited on so many of the songs I already knew.
One day in about 2013 I was at my desk during my lunch break - teaching 7th grade Language Arts in a windowless classroom in the suburbs was beginning to crush my soul by this point - and I stumbled upon Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest episodes on YouTube.
Longing to be playing music instead of entering grades, I was captured by the episode where Ralph and the boys play “Worried Man Blues” and “Clinch Mountain Backstep”. That was the first time I’d closely listened AND watched the band. The harmonies! So expressive, without facial expressions! And George Shuffler on the guitar - I didn’t know the word for crosspicking yet, but it blew me away! Plus, his guitar was a Martin like mine, and he sounded like Andy Griffith, another voice I grew up on.
Then there was the banjo.
By this time, I’d gone to John C Campbell Folk School in North Carolina to study clawhammer banjo and had been playing for a couple years. Playing, but not nearly enough listening. Although Ralph was picking on this video and not frailing, the clean, loud, steady, bluesiness of it had a raw, rural quality that hooked me just like his unaccompanied singing had years before.
As I watched the video, mesmerized, I was torn. On one hand, I wanted to quit music forever because I could never be as good as he was. On the other hand, I wanted to run out of the windowless classroom immediately and disappear into Appalachia to study and play music forever. I didn’t finish my sandwich. The grades didn’t get entered. I laid my head on the pile of papers and cried.
I guess the latter feeling was stronger, because at the end of the school year, I quit.
Two years after that I moved to western North Carolina - and was making a living playing old time music.
Just goes to show, be careful what you listen to.
Ralph Stanley might make you move to the mountains too!