When Dr. Ralph Stanley and His Clinch Mountain Boys played the Mockingbird Roots Music Hall in Staunton, Virginia back in August of this year, tickets sold out fast. After all, it isn’t every day that lovers of old-time mountain music get the opportunity to see a performer as celebrated as Ralph Stanley in a listening room with a premium on intimacy.
You may know him from his rendition of the Appalachian dirge “O Death” on O Brother, Where Art Thou, but Ralph Stanley was the godfather of old-time long before the Coen brothers found him.
“So many of the shows that Ralph and the Clinch Mountain Boys play throughout the year are either big festivals or large theaters,” said Mockingbird booking agent Jeremiah Jenkins. “It’s a rare treat when they get the opportunity to perform in a space where the audience and the artist get to interact and feed off each other’s energy.” At the end of the performance, Jenkins asked Stanley what he thought of the show, and the first thing out of Ralph’s mouth was “When can we come back?”
The answer to that question came when the Mockingbird announced a special two-night encore with Dr. Ralph Stanley and His Clinch Mountain Boys for Friday and Saturday, November 4 and 5. Jenkins said that the music hall wanted to put together a two-night gig simply because it would allow an even greater number of fans the experience of hearing a living icon of American roots music.
The first time I saw Dr. Ralph and the Clinch Mountain Boys play was in the spring of 2002, in the heart of Dickenson County, Virginia, at the Hills of Home Festival just outside of Stanley’s hometown of Coeburn. Held on the grounds of the old Stanley homestead for the past 41 years, the festival was hosted, as it always has been, by Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys. Buried on a hillside near the cabin stage are the graves of Stanley’s mother, who taught her son how to play the banjo in the clawhammer-style that made him famous, and that of his brother Carter, who shared the stage with Ralph for 20 years as part of the widely celebrated Stanley Brothers until his death in 1966.
That year, in addition to seeing Stanley perform two sets, I also saw performances by the late Charlie Waller, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings—who were regular guests at The Hills of Home from the late ’90s well into the last decade—and a surprise appearance by Jim Lauderdale, who would go on to share the Grammy for Bluegrass Album of the Year with Stanley for their 2003 collaboration Lost in the Lonesome Pines.
There’s not much to say about hearing Dr. Ralph Stanley that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over, which comes with the territory when you’re dealing with someone who’s spent over 65 years recording, performing and touring. Preferring to call his style and sound “old-time mountain music” in favor of the more commonly used “bluegrass,” Stanley has in his own way become a voice for the peaks of Appalachia. To witness Stanley playing an old banjo tune his mother taught him all those years ago, or to hear a high and lonesome song like “O Death,” there’s no mistaking what it means to be at the heart of those mountains.
By the time I had experienced my first taste of The Hills of Home, the O Brother, Where Art Thou movie soundtrack had already begun changing the direction of roots music. I was working with Allegheny Mountain Radio, a network of rural radio stations that proudly proclaims its motto as “Unique by Nature, Traditional By Choice.” While in some areas, artists like Ralph Stanley were played more as a result of O Brother, he’d been a playlist staple with Allegheny Mountain Radio for decades. Which isn’t to say the importance of the Grammy-winning soundtrack wasn’t noticed, but for us, the soundtrack was important as a validation of traditional music, rather than a discovery of it.
Like Stanley, I too grew up in the mountains of Appalachia, albeit further north along the West Virginia border, in Highland County. I feel like I understand the isolation, beauty, and age that those mountains represent. But even from Charlottesville or Staunton, many of us could take a Sunday drive listening to a Stanley classic like “Rank Stranger” and be able to recognize a similar spirit of Ralph Stanley’s Clinch River. Our mountains have similar stories to tell, even if the characters are different.
Home, they say, is where the heart is, and for 65 years now Dr. Ralph Stanley has been playing from that heart. By all accounts, it also sounds like Stanley and his brand of traditional old-time mountain music have found a flicker of that home on the stage of the Mockingbird Roots Music Hall.