The tropical depression caused by Hurricane Francis soaked southwestern Virginia for two days in early September, forcing the organizers of the Russell County Fair to move Ralph Stanley’s annual appearance from the fairgrounds to Castlewood High School a mile away.
My friend Denise Stanley (Ralph’s cousin) guided me to the high school after we saw the announcement at the fair’s entrance. Visible as we drove up the hill to the school was Ralph’s teal-colored tour bus. I recognized the bus because I had seen it driving toward Coeburn on Monday as I returned to Abingdon from theUniversity of Virginia’s College at Wise, where I teach.
Leaning against the wall near the front door was a young girl in a western outfit, wearing a black hat. Inside, admission was $16 – almost triple the $6 I had paid for the fair plus concert in September 2001. A line of tables supported what has become a small industry of Ralph Stanley CDs, t-shirts, pictures, and hats.
The man himself sat behind one of the tables wearing a black shirt, white tie, silver suit, and white western hat. A couple of the Clinch Mountain Boys were tuning up. This inside venue had an entirely different ambience than the fairground concert arena, where some men and women clog danced as Ralph and the boys played. Outside was laid back, with lights from a ferris wheel and the sound of announcements mingling with the music show. Inside felt congested and unnatural as folks like tobacco farmer Al Hurt from Scott County trod the polished high school corridors in farm work clothes.
Unnatural ambience or not, the performance was excellent. The Clinch Mountain Boys, now including Ralph’s young grandson Nathan on mandolin, lined up on basketball court, facing about 200 hardy fans. Ralph announced that some had driven 300 miles to attend the show. He did not let them down. He was generous with his own vocals, singing “Room at the Top of the Stairs,” “O Death,” “Little Maggie,” “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Girl from the Greenbrier Shore,” “Lift Him Up,” and “A Robin Built a Nest on Daddy’s Grave.”
His son Ralph Stanley II sang an equal number of songs from his own four CDs, including “Carrying On” – a touching song about what it is like to be carrying on the legacy of a living legend and a deceased uncle, Carter Stanley.
Throughout the performance, the elder Ralph served as master of ceremonies and commentator on the proceedings, complimenting bassist Jack Cook on being in good voice and describing a songwriter whose work was performed as “a good Christian man. His wife’s a Christian, too.”
Ralph even provided his own introduction, telling the audience about a young man who had achieved considerable recognition in recent years. “He’s such a fine young man that I could talk about him until four in the morning,” he joked. The audience gave him a standing ovation.
Ralph encourages very young performers who know his work. He sang a duet with the young girl in the black cowboy hat, after asking her questions about whether she was married, intended to marry, or had a boyfriend. The girl looked about 10. Ralph was having fun. When the girl asked if he would sing with her, he said, “I might.” The girl sang enthusiastically but flat, reading her lyrics from a sheet of paper. Ralph contributed a couple of verses and the show went back to the professionals.
Ralph concluded this show, as he said he had concluded 42 consecutive nights of “Down from the Mountain” concerts, by lining and singing “Amazing Grace.” Lining consists of half singing, half saying each line quickly before it is sung so that the audience can take part. Lining comes from the Baptist tradition of“say a note, sing a note,” which sounds like a descendant of shape-note singing.
After“Amazing Grace,” Ralph simply walked out of the gym, stopping to say hello to some men watching near the wall. Fiddler James Rigsby had launched into “Orange Blossom Special.” He looked up at the audience in the gymnasium stands. “Don’t leave,” he said. “This is my song.”