By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys
Sunday, April 11; Duck Room
You might as well ask the river why it runs or the wind why it blows as ask Dr. Ralph Stanley why his music has endured for half-a-century. Writers turn to phrases like "force of nature" when words fail, but with Stanley the forces of nature -- the isolation of the mountains, the majesty of the rivers and valleys, the presence of some unseen god in the forest -- ripple through his voice and banjo. With Bill Monroe's passing two years ago, Stanley is now the soul of bluegrass music and one of the most important figures in music, period. I would call him a national treasure, if that phrase wasn't so abused. His genius and longevity have few parallels.
Stanley's musical career began 53 years ago with his brother Carter. "Just like any old country boys that liked to get into the music business, we were the same way," he says. "We heard some of the old timers on the radio like the Carter Family and the Monroe Brothers; we felt that we'd like to have a piece of it too." Though they were known as the Stanley Brothers, Carter and Ralph always carried a band, but it was their harmonies, coupled with Ralph's pre-bluegrass, two-finger banjo work, that shaped their sound.
"My mother taught me the old time claw-hammer style," Stanley says, "and I picked up the two-finger and three-finger on my own. The first time she showed me, I played it just like she did. I was about 11 years old." Though bluegrass is often defined by the lightning three-finger banjo of Earl Scruggs, Stanley's picking stands apart: He's fast, but in his use of just two fingers, his breaks have a crisp, melodic quality, an indissolvable mountain air. That sound isn't lost on Stanley, and as some bluegrass-influenced bands have dropped the banjo in favor of dobro, Stanley has added a second banjo: "I have another banjo player, Steve Sparkman, and he plays exactly like I do. It's a style of my own; I never wanted it to sound like anybody else."
"Traditional" is a word often applied to Stanley's music, but "traditional innovation" is more accurate. In 1971 Stanley released the landmark bluegrass gospel album Cry from the Cross (Rebel), including a cappella numbers based in tight quartet harmonies. "I'm the first in bluegrass to ever record that style," he says. "I got that from the churches where I was raised. There was no (instrumental) music in the primitive-Baptist churches. They all sung together, and the ladies sang the high parts. I put the different parts in, the tenor, baritone and bass."
In his 72nd year, Stanley refuses to slow down. His band plays 200 dates a year, and though he now lets Ralph Jr. handle much of the lead vocals, Ralph Sr. still sings in that high, desolate style that is his greatest gift, his inimitable signature. "I think my voice is even stronger," he says. "I believe I have a little help in that. I don't believe I do that on my own. I've asked for that help, and I believe it's been given to me. Somebody is helping me a little. You might know who I mean." (RK)
Wednesday, April 14; Fox
Neil Young Timeline:1970: After the Gold Rush released; first No Depression record.
1972: Harvest released; first sensitive-singer/songwriter record. Predates Jewel by 25 years (note: also performs this year with Buffy Sainte-Marie, who, rumor has it, actually is Jewel)
1975: Tonight's the Night released; first deconstructed-junkie homage, predating Royal Trux by 15 years.
1979: Rust Never Sleeps released; first grunge record.
1981: Re*ac*tor released, containing the song "Opera Star," the first Opera Rock song, predating Malcolm McLaren's Fans by four years. Queen doesn't count.
1982: Trans released; predates Add N to (X) and synthetic noise music by 13 years.
1983: Everybody's Rockin' released; first rockabilly-revival record, unless you count the Stray Cats, which we won't.
1990: Ragged Glory released, predating Built to Spill by five years.
1993: Pinnacle year: Not only does Young collaborate with both Randy Bachman and Blue Oyster Cult, but Motorhead covers his "Cinnamon Girl."
1995: Mirror Ball, a collaboration with Pearl Jam, released at the exact same moment Eddie Vedder starts taking himself too seriously. (RR)
Contributors: Roy Kasten, Lee Kelemen, Terry Perkins, Gary Phillips, Randall Roberts