Ralph Stanley has an honorary doctorate of music from Lincoln Memorial University, a museum dedicated to his life on the Crooked Road, a National Medal of Arts, and has been inducted into the International Bluegrass Hall of Honor, among other laurels.
However, it’s fairly simple to get hold of him by phone on a quiet weekday afternoon while he relaxes at home. He’s perfectly content to answer questions for a brief interview unfiltered by PR people, agents or handlers.
His voice is slightly hoarse but also soft, like wood that has worn with age and use to something gentle and welcoming. He has the same plain speech anybody in a quiet corner of southwest Virginia does, and the same polite, modest tone while discussing a variety of topics. Even when describing his good fortune, he’s proud, but not prideful.
“You know, they go crazy about me and my music anywhere I go in Europe. England, France, any of ‘em,” he says, when asked the reception he gets when he tours outside of America. “I get accepted real well over there. Every foreign country I’ve ever been to is 110 percent.”
Some music aficionados insist that bluegrass is one kind of music and old-time is another. Stanley doesn’t particularly care to make such distinctions. “Really bluegrass is nothing but old-time country music you know, they just named it after Bill Monroe. It’s just old-time country music,” he says. But he’s only so willing to be elastic in his definition of what that entails. “Well, there’s some people, you know, plays something and calls it bluegrass which I don’t call bluegrass. I don’t know. Maybe they try, you know, but there’s just some that I’ve heard that you don’t call bluegrass.” He doesn’t elaborate, perhaps out of politeness to the offending performers.
The music, whatever you choose to label it as, is beautiful, but why is it always about hardship? “You know, I imagine they experienced that, don’t you guess?” he says. “They experienced a lot of that.” Ladies in those songs don’t end up well, do they? He laughs. “Yeah.”
He only plays one instrument, he says—the banjo—but it’s part of how he’s built a career for himself. If he couldn’t sing and play, what would he do?
“I don’t know. I can’t do nothing else,” he says, laughing. “I’d just have to go home and hole up, I guess. Cause I don’t know of anything else I’m any good at.”
He had considered studying to be a veterinarian in his youth, but, he says, “I don’t know, I guess I was just young and got it on my mind. You know, I took agriculture in high school two hours a day for four years and I was interested in animals at that time. I guess I just got ‘em on my mind. I still like to fool with animals, you know. I’ve got a couple of horses.”
There’s speculation that the mountain music he loves might by slowly dying out, but he disagrees. “I think it’s OK yet,” he declares. “I believe it’s doing alright. I know it is for me, and I believe it’s doing alright.”
There does appear to be a new generation coming to the music, but not all of them seem to be the children and grandchildren of people born to the tradition.
“Well, I think there’s a lot of people from outside learnin’ everyday,” he says. “I think they’re coming, new people, all the time. My crowds and everything, you know, it’s bigger than ever.”
Bluegrass is beautiful, though often not very lucrative. Stanley gained leaps in recognition after ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ but given the tenure of his career, it was a long time coming. He still, however, doesn’t regret not going full-out Nashville, releasing slick country-pop and using his name as leverage to rake in big money.
“No, I wouldn’t attempt to do that,” he says firmly. “I do what I like and luckily I can do well enough to get by on it, you know. No, I wouldn’t make any changes.”
Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys will play on Saturday April 20 at 6 p.m.; tickets are $25 in advance or $30 at the door and can be purchased at the Riner Food Center, the Radford Travel Center, Due South BBQ, McNeil Real Estate, The Sportsman, or the Christiansburg Livestock Market (children 12 and under free).
Directions: take exit 105 off I-81, then left onto Little River Dam Road along the river. Follow the road for three miles; barn is on the left.