God was preparing me for this. I’m probably the biggest Ralph Stanley fan there is. Ever. There was just something about the sound of his voice, the ring of his banjo, the humility of his words and actions that spoke deeply to me.
I had to be at a funeral at Clintwood this past Sunday. Since I was over in that area I decided to go through St. Paul, Virginia to visit some friends there on our way home. I traveled the route through McClure, Nora, Trammel, and Dante (for you furrinners, that’s Daynt, not Dan-tay). I traveled past the Carter Stanley and Dr Ralph Stanley roads. I remembered the time I got to attend a “Hills of Home” festival put on by the claw-hammer banjo-ist. I actually got to speak to him like anybody. He was just as plain and down to earth as could be.
In “O, Brother Where art thou?” Stanley sings an ancient ballad depicting a contest between the soul and death. It was placed in the movie at a point where the characters find themselves in the middle of a KKK rally. It was a perfect placement of song and cinema. This inclusion got Dr Stanley renewed notice by the music world and he enjoyed several years of extended touring from it.
But his collection of recordings contain even more gems that can be mined by anyone willing to give them a serious consideration. My personal favorite is “A Robin Built a Nest on Daddy’s Grave,” an uplifting song that builds hope after the experience of loss as the singer intones the truth that springtime points toward resurrection.
Many Ralph Stanley songs can be found on YouTube and other sites, including iTunes. I’m going to miss the man. His grandson, Nathan and son Ralph Stanley, II, will try and carry on his work. But there will be no one that can replace him.
Brother Ralph, thank you for your songs, and thank you for a life well lived. See you in Gloryland.