Imagine being 3 feet from Ralph Stanley as he sings O Death (a capella of course). I was there in the Manuscripts Department of Wilson Library about 2 hours ago listening not only to O Death but to Ralph Stanley talking about his early days in music, about learning banjo from his mother, watching him play the old time clawhammer style that she taught him on “Shout Little Lulu.”
Ralph is nearly 80 and has serious hair. He started out singing “Girl From The Green Far Shore” accompanied by his grandson, Nathan, on mandolin and James Shelton on guitar. When Bob Cantwell asked if that was a Carter Family song, he said no it was older. But then owned up that he learned it from T-Bone Burnett.
It was then that we heard a little banjo-playing on “Shout Little Lulu” which turned into a really fast paced romp.
At Bob’s request, Ralph talked a little about his banjo style how he added a finger and played mostly three finger style. These days, he allowed, he didn’t play banjo so much because of arthritis, but he looked pretty damn good to me.
He next sang “Man of Constant Sorrow” which he had first recorded in 1948. In his version, he sings “Farewell to old Kentucky” (I have about 40 versions of this song and each singer says farewell to a different place. Bob Dylan bids farewell to Colorado).
Bob asked about his distinctive vocal style and Ralph said that it was God’s gift and that he hoped he had used that gift wisely. He wouldn’t sang hardly any old Carter Brothers songs because he sings tenor and he needed someone to harmonize with. His son, Ralph 2nd, was in the hospital with flu-like symptoms.
Then he sang “Little Birdie” along with some clawhammer frailling.
Bob asked him about the coming of Elvis which he said “starved out” most of the old time and bluegrass bands. The Stanley Brothers continued because they were (and are) distinctive.
Nathan played lead on “Sandy Ridge” then on another of his own compositions “Papaw’s Mule” named for Ralph’s old white mule.
James Shelton did some crosspicking on “Sunny Side of the Mountain.”
Then the three played “Will You Miss Me” as an instrumental.
After a little discussion, Ralph sang his “scary” song, “O Death” which he later said sold over 10 million copies.
James finally agreed to sing on a song he said he learned from Bob Dylan, “Walking on down the line.”
The group finished up with Ralph on banjo as they played “Old Time Picking”
They’re playing in Memorial Hall with the Red Clay Ramblers right now (I didn’t get tickets in time to go — it’s sold out).