Clawhammer-style banjo player, bandleader and high tenor Ralph Stanley, now 79, is as dedicated to traditional mountain music now as he was when he first started playing it as a boy in his hilly southwest corner of Virginia.
"We're gonna do our best to put on one of the best shows that's ever been there," he says of his upcoming tours. "We're gonna play a lot of gospel songs and instrumentals and play a great show for the entire family. We do new and old songs, take requests, and try to please everybody. If somebody shouts out a request and puts one in beforehand, we'll try our best to play it. You know, out of about 200 CDs and long-payer albums, that's about three or four thousand songs, so we'll certainly try."
Through his years with the Stanley Brothers, a duo with his late guitar-playing brother Carter, and acoustic combo The Clinch Mountain Boys, Stanley held firmly to the traditional approach to old-time numbers, developing his own tightly-wound style and signature "high lonesome" voice. He's rightly revered as a giant in the old-time and bluegrass community.
Stanley was born in Dickenson County, Va., where he still lives with his wife. He grew up attending Baptist church and listening to Appalachian folk, old-time and bluegrass. He and Carter began playing regularly as the Stanley Brothers in the late 1940s. For two decades, the Stanley Brothers and various lineups of the Clinch Mountain Boys worked regularly among some of the finest bluegrass groups in the world, including Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Jim & Jesse and Del McCoury.
Celebrated by folk, country, and bluegrass fans for years, Stanley's unique mountain style reached a wider audience in the last five years or so. The recent resurgence of bluegrass and old time music and the younger generation's interest in digging for it can be partially attributed to the success of the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers' 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which featured a Stanley Brothers' version of "Angel Band" and an a cappella rendition of "O Death" from Ralph.
"I enjoyed that movie and thought it was a real good soundtrack," he says. "It was the old-timey mountain music, which is what I like."
Stanely was also a central figure in Down from the Mountain, a 2000 documentary and concert film by D.A. Pennebaker featuring a live performance by country and traditional music artists. In 2001, he won Grammys for Best Country Male Vocalist Performance and Album of the Year. He holds the Living Legend award from the Library of Congress and was the first recipient of the Traditional American Music award from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
"Well, it's true these awards have been coming pretty fast," he says, "but I enjoy every one of them. I was a little surprised by the Best Country Male Vocalist award, but that was the one I really hoped to win. It just felt so good I can't hardly tell you."
The current version of his band includes longtime acoustic bassist Jack Cooke, acoustic guitarist James Shelton, banjo player Steve Sparkman, fiddle player Todd Mead, and young mandolin player Nathan Stanley (Ralph's grandson).
"Everybody understands each other," says Stanley. "It's a good band. And it's all traditional. If it wasn't, we wouldn't have any of it."
Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys perform with support from the Cadillac Stepbacks at the Lincoln Theatre Saturday, March 1, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $23-$32.