Stanley's life is a history of bluegrass

August 11, 1994|By Bob Allen | Bob Allen,Special to The Sun

Despite its ties to more archaic strains of folk music, bluegrass music is one of the few styles of popular American music whose origins can be traced back to one specific era (the late 1940s) and one specific group of musicians who forged it from the mountain-style string-band music, gospel and blues that they'd been raised on. Most notably, that's Bill Monroe and his band, which for a time included banjo legend Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt.

Though he was not present at that creation, bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley was not far behind. The Southern Virginia native began playing old-timey, mountain-and gospel-flavored music shortly after World War II, along with his brother Carter, who died in 1966. By the early 1950s, the Stanleys had fallen hard under the Monroe/Scruggs influence.

Today, at age 67, Ralph Stanley, who has remained active on the bluegrass circuit since Carter's death, is second only to the aging Bill Monroe himself as the music's reigning eminence. He is a leading light whose band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, has been a training ground for more recent bluegrass and country music stars.

John Wright's "Traveling the High Way Home" is a book-length study of Mr. Stanley's music and the cult of appreciation that has grown up around it in recent years. As he points out, Mr. Stanley's pervasive influence is largely on account of the distinctly conservative path he has hewed to within the relatively strict confines of bluegrass itself. Particularly since his brother's death, when he assumed the reins of the band, Mr. Stanley has veered back toward bluegrass' fundamental Appalachian roots, playing what he himself has called "the old-time style of what they call bluegrass music."

As Dr. Wright goes on to explain, Mr. Stanley's music is "old-time" in terms of style, rather than chronology: ". . . 'Old Time,' most of all, is a matter of singing," he writes. "[Mr. Stanley] has always been in many ways, an impersonal singer, classical, not romantic. His perfect phrasing and delicate melodic twists, the product of generations of mountain vocal art, completely untouched . . . by the blues or any other form of popular music, are employed for the song, not the singer, it is this stance and artistry, more than anything else, that made and continue to make [Stanley] old time, [and] probably America's finest traditional singer."

Dr. Wright, a professor of Latin language and literature at Northwestern University and a long-time columnist for the Banjo Newsletter, is quick to emphasize that "Traveling the High Way Home" is not a popular biography. He does not attempt to tell Ralph Stanley's story so much as he does the story of his music.

He's put together a hodgepodge of scholarly discourse ("The First Forty Years," the book's opening chapter, is probably the most inspired overview of Mr. Stanley's long career ever written) and oral history. There are chapters of virtually raw transcripts of interviews with everyone from J. E. Mainer, the late string-band legend -- one of Mr. Stanley's early influences -- to a couple who sell T-shirts at his concerts.

Yet this book is marred by his insistence on compartmentalizing Mr. Stanley's music from some of the more visceral events in his life that might have shaped it.

For instance, it's common knowledge in bluegrass circles that Carter Stanley's death was preceded by years of alcoholism. Yet Carter, as seen through the eyes of these various "witnesses," never so much as takes a sip of beer.

No real explanation of his illness is given, either before or after the grisly accounts of him in his final days, coughing up blood, quarts at a time.

Inexplicably, two of the most intriguing and talented figures to pass through Carter's band -- Ricky Skaggs, one of the most innovative figures in 1980s country music, and the late Keith Whitley, a brilliant rising country star who died of alcohol poisoning in 1989 -- are only mentioned in passing.

Dr. Wright's excessive circumspection might stem from an academic's contempt for anything even hinting at the sensationalism of popular biography -- or maybe he just doesn't want to alienate friends in bluegrass' clannish circles. But it does seem well-intentioned, as if he's striving to keep his tribute to his subject as pure as Mr. Stanley has kept his music over the decades. Ultimately, "Traveling the High Way Home" is a worthy and overdue tribute to one of America's most vital links to its own musical past.

Mr. Allen has written frequently about country music and bluegrass. He lives in Eldersburg.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Traveling the High Way Home: Ralph Stanley and the World of Traditional Bluegrass Music"

Author: John Wright

Publisher: University of Illinois

Length, price: 242 pages, $27.50

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