Sometimes if you sit still long enough the world will come to you, or someplace close, like Wabasha, where Ralph Stanley and the latest version of the Clinch Mountain Boys performed last Sunday. Stanley is one of the seminal originators and performers of bluegrass music, second only to Bill Monroe, the acknowledged father of the distinctive country genre. Stanley began performing with his brother Carter back in 1946, which would make last Sunday in Wabasha 65 years on the road. He is now 84.
My first encounter with Stanley and bluegrass music was back in April of 1973, when he was brought to Winona by Porkbelly Productions, a trio of Winonans consisting of John Streater, Linda Smit, and Roy Berger. It was a time when rock ‘n roll musicians were looking back to their roots in country and blues music, and a popular style of the day was known as country rock, a fusion of rock and country styles. That led, of course, to an interest in the original music and its performers, and somehow Streater got in touch with Ralph Stanley, found out he would be touring in the midwest, and arranged a fill-in date here in Winona at the old middle school auditorium.
I had not listened to much bluegrass at the time and had never heard of Stanley, but went to the concert and was amazed to discover this powerful, compelling, music played by incredibly accomplished musicians, with its beautiful, eerie, harmonies and distinctive, keening vocal style, like the wail of bagpipes. I have been a fan ever since.
Linda, who is a graphic artist for the Post these days, tells about Stanley calling his wife after the concert. “Mother,” he said, “you’re never going to believe this. There was a whole auditorium full of long-haired hippies – and they loved our music!” He can’t play much banjo anymore due to arthritic hands, but did perform one number in the “clawhammer” style – (sorry, I have no clue what that is) – and, spoofing a younger generation of performers, made a move to throw his coat into the audience. He held back, he informed us, only because he remembered there was a picture of his wife in the pocket.
Other than that, there was little show of emotion or being caught up in the music by Stanley or any of the other band members, who make up for his lack of banjo with their incredible virtuosity. Each tears through his own intricate part at breakneck speed, entirely deadpan, Stanley singing along in his dead-toned style, no vibrato whatsoever. His voice has become a little hoarse with age, but is still supple enough to handle the quick phrasing of his high, lonesome singing style, much like the way blues is sung, if you think about it.
I was able to ask him a few questions: “Where do you think the roots of your music are?”
“Oh, just a God-given ability to sing and play, I guess.” That wasn’t the answer I was looking for, but not a bad one at all. His itinerary trends more and more to the gospel these days. I pressed him a little. “Would you say it comes from Ireland?”
“Oh yes, of course.”
“Would it have the same roots as blues music?”
“Certainly,” he said, without pausing.
Just what I wanted to hear.