Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ralph Stanley in The New York Times

Old-Timer, Still Telling Mountain Tales

Ralph Stanley is one of the last, and surely the purest, of the traditional country musicians. He’s such a stickler that he has no use for the dobro, let alone electrified instruments, and he’s not overly fond of the term bluegrass. He prefers to call what he performs “that old-time mountain music.” He plays the five-string banjo in the claw-hammer style he learned from his mother — or he used to, until arthritis caught up with him — and he sings in a raw, keening Appalachian tenor.

The songs tend to be about hard times, unfaithful lovers, deceased children, lonely graves. One of his most famous, “O Death,” is a pleading dialogue with the Grim Reaper himself. It used to be said that when you heard a Ralph Stanley tune, you either wanted to get drunk or go to church and get saved.

Mr. Stanley is 82 and, except for a dry spell in the early 1950s when he worked as a spot welder in Detroit, he has been performing steadily since he was a teenager. He still plays more than 100 dates a year, though he travels now in a customized bus rather than in an old Chevy, the band crammed in the back seat and the bass strapped to the roof. He has even been to Japan several times, where fans learn his songs by rote.

The rest is at

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