Living Legend

August 21, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RALPH STANLEY: (singing) I am a man of constant sorrow

JEFFREY BROWN: The original man of constant sorrow, Ralph Stanley, has been singing this old-time music classic for more than 50 years.

RALPH STANLEY: (singing) I bid farewell to old Kentucky, the state where I was born and raised

JEFFREY BROWN: Stanley’s high, soulful voice was heard by many for the first time only recently on the hugely successful soundtrack to the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou.”

RALPH STANLEY: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And only this year at age 75 did he win his first Grammy award. (Applause) But Ralph Stanley has long been a legend among those who love this music.

WOMAN: In this voice is just unbelievable. He is the father of mountain soul, isn’t he?

RALPH STANLEY: Thank you, folks. Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: And he is the star among bluegrass and other stars on a tour called “Down from the Mountain.” We talked with him on his touring bus outside Knoxville, Tennessee. I asked him what he calls the music he plays.

RALPH STANLEY: Well, I like to call my music old-time country or old-time mountain country. Just plain old American music.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you say “old-time music,” what do you mean?

RALPH STANLEY: Well, back years ago, back where I’m from… I’m from way back in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. And people at that time maybe had a banjo and a fiddle or something. They didn’t have many guitars. But they would get together and have, you know, and play with each other and play the instruments and have a square dance or just have a good time playing their old instruments.

JEFFREY BROWN: Stanley learned to play the banjo from his mother, and after World War II began to perform with his older brother Carter. They traveled constantly, playing in small radio stations and halls throughout the Appalachian region.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m betting you didn’t used to ride like this, in a beautiful bus?

RALPH STANLEY: Not hardly. I used to travel in a sedan car with about six people and a big bass fiddle, maybe, a hangin’, laying across us. You’re bumping your head and everything. This is a little bit different. You know, where I’m playing to thousands now, I was playing to hundreds back then. And a lot of it was middle-aged people and older people. ‘Course back then, the children liked the music then, too. But as… later years, why, we sort of lost a lot of the young audience, you know. They got a little bit more modern with the music, and liked the country music and rock ‘n’ roll and things like that.

JEFFREY BROWN: The rock ‘n’ roll years were hard ones, right?

RALPH STANLEY: Well, yeah, in the ’50s it was very lean. About the time Elvis Presley came out, why he was it… young, old, and everybody else. And that hurt our personal appearances and, you know, it cut deep.

JEFFREY BROWN: Carter Stanley died in 1966, and Ralph went on alone, now as leader of his own group, the Clinch Mountain Boys. Since then, they’ve played the circuit of bluegrass festivals and small clubs around the country. Stanley still plays more than 160 dates in more than 130 different towns. He sings the same songs, the ones he loves, over and over, but never in quite the same way.

RALPH STANLEY: I never sing the same line twice. I just sing it the way I feel it, and I might… I might sing one verse one way and the… I might get a little more spirit and do it a different way the next time. Because all the singers that’s ever sung with me said I was the hardest man they ever sung with because we never knew… never did know where you was going with the song.

RALPH STANLEY: (singing) Polly, pretty Polly come and go along with me, Polly, pretty Polly come and go along with me before we get married some pleasure we’ll see…

JEFFREY BROWN: Patty Loveless joined Stanley on the old time standard “Pretty Polly.” In the past, Bob Dylan joined him, all attracted by his unique voice.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you describe your voice? It’s unique.

RALPH STANLEY: That’s not my voice.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you mean?

RALPH STANLEY: That’s a God-given voice. If it wasn’t for the lord’s will, I couldn’t… I couldn’t sing that way. He gives everybody everything they have. That’s what I’m a ‘tellin’ you about changin’ the verse or maybe a word or two. It can come to me that way, see. That’s what you call the spirit, comes to you. Sometimes I can’t sing a lick. Sometimes I feel real good. Sometimes I feel like just jumping straight up. That’s when you can really do the singing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just jumping straight up in the air.



JEFFREY BROWN: Ralph Stanley is at his most haunting and ghostly in the unaccompanied dirge, “O Death.”

RALPH STANLEY: (singing) Won’t you spare me over til another year …

RALPH STANLEY: There’s never been truer words ever written because every word in that “O Death” song is going to come. It’s going to come to you and me and everybody else. And I try my best to make people understand it when I sing that, that it is.

RALPH STANLEY: (singing) The children prayed and the preacher preached, time and mercy are out of your reach..

RALPH STANLEY: I never think about it, but I know… I sing that every night, and I know that one day, maybe tomorrow or maybe 50 years from today, that’s coming to me, see. It’s already come to a lot of people. And that’s true, a true song. (Applause)

RALPH STANLEY: (singing) Amazing grace how sweet the sound…

JEFFREY BROWN: These days, Ralph Stanley ends the “Down from the Mountain” concerts surrounded by his wife and the children of the musicians on the tour, leading performers and audience in “Amazing Grace.” In his long life of music, Stanley has sung for 20 people and now crowds that can reach 20,000. He says he prefers the latter.

RALPH STANLEY: I’m more at myself before 20,000 people than I am ten. I’m just as calm, just as natural to me as eating a piece of cornbread.

JEFFREY BROWN: No problem, 20,000 people?

RALPH STANLEY: (Laughs) Not a bit. I wish it’d be 40 and I was getting the proceeds.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Ralph Stanley, thanks for talking to us.

RALPH STANLEY: Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it.

RALPH STANLEY: Thank you very much. Good night, everybody. (Cheers and applause)