Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, Nashville Bluegrass Band, Homeboy Reunion
Southern National BBQ Championship and Bluegrass Festival
Sun. Aug. 31
10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.
$22, $20/adv. (adults), $10/&8 adv. (kids)
Boone Hall Plantation
1235 Long Point Road, Mt. Pleasant
Tradition is his thing. Through his years with the Stanley Brothers and acoustic combo The Clinch Mountain Boys, Dr. Ralph Stanley held firmly to the traditional approach to old-time vocal songs and instrumental music and developed his own tightly-wound style and signature "high lonesome" voice.
Celebrated as a master in the old-time and bluegrass community, the clawhammer-style banjo player, arranger, band leader, and high-tenor singer is as dedicated to traditional mountain music now as he was when he first started playing as a boy in his hometown of Stratton in the southwest corner of Virginia.
Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys perform at the Southern National BBQ Championship and Bluegrass Festival at Boone Hall Plantation in Mt. Pleasant on Sun. Aug. 31 (also see City Pick on p. 51). Stanley and the Boys headline two late-evening sets, preceded by sets from the award-winning Nashville Bluegrass Band at 5 p.m. and the reunited Homeboy Reunion at noon and 1:15 p.m.
Local bluegrass fans are excited about the Nashville Bluegrass Band, a Grammy-winning group that initially formed to accompany Minnie Pearl on a 1984 package tour. The lineup features Mike Compton on mandolin, Pat Enright on guitar, Alan O'Bryant on banjo, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and Andy Todd on upright bass.
"We're gonna do our best to put on one of the best shows that's ever been there," the 81-year-old band leader says of his upcoming performance. "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 long-player albums, that's about three or four thousand songs, so we'll certainly try."
The current 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. "And it's all traditional. If it wasn't, we wouldn't have any of it."
Stanley was born in Dickenson County, Va., where he still lives with his wife. He grew up attending Baptist church and listening to the folk, gospel, old time, and bluegrass music of the Appalachian region. He and his older brother, the late Carter Stanley, started 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, Del McCoury, and others.
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 (featured in a memorable scene involving a Ku Klux Klan meeting).
"I enjoyed that movie, and thought it was a good soundtrack," he says. "It was the old-timey mountain music, which is what I like."
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. He was 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. It just felt so good I can't hardly tell you."
Stanley's latest album, Mountain Preacher's Child, is a compilation of gospel tunes and religious folk songs recorded with the Clinch Mountain Boys between 1979 and 1985. Stanley and singer Charlie Sizemore share rich, sad-tone harmonies on most of the songs — from the waltzy "Troublesome Waters" to the upbeat "The God That Never Fails."
Catching Stanley and his band as they pick and sing within the mossy, breezy atmosphere of Boone Hall Plantation provides the perfect introduction for younger music lovers — and an elegant setting for longtime fans.