(Ralph Stanley (left), with his brother Carter)
Back in the days when Nashville was close enough to the mountains for a little of the hardest music made there to slip on to the radio now and again Bill Monroe reached the country charts all of nine times. The Louvin Brothers made it twelve times (after which Charlie had a substantial career of his own), Flatt and Scruggs fifteen.
The Stanley Brothers, Carter and Ralph, made it once, in 1960. All the way to #17 with “How Far to Little Rock,” a “talking” record with corny jokes and banjo.
That was their version of selling out.
Most of the rest of the time–and by most, I mean about ninety-nine percent–they played music so pure Ralph, the survivor (Carter was killed in a car accident in 1966), didn’t even consider it bluegrass.
Which, despite his calling it “old time mountain music” and such, maybe just meant he considered his own sound its own category or simply beyond category, as nameless as any ghost.
The Stanleys kicked up some dust in the mid-sixties revival that discovered all kinds of old-timey music. Carter was barely 40 and Ralph two years younger when they toured Europe in 1966. But Carter’s death soon after ended any chance they would ever really resonate outside their region, which stretched roughly from their Virginia birth place (McClure, a range or two over from my father’s birth place in East Tennessee) to Live Oak, Florida (where they had a radio show the year I was born, a couple of hours away), to somewhere in the Ozarks.
Ralph stayed a trouper. He carried the torch for decades after his brother’s death. His band providing a launching pad for future stars like Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley and he played the Opry and the road constantly, finding a final stretch of fame as the Grand Old Man of the ‘grass revival kicked up by the success of O, Brother Where Art Thou at the turn of the millennium.
But as important as all that was, it paled next to what the Stanley Brothers got up to in their heyday, between the late forties and early sixties. Starting out as inspired imitators of Monroe (they were good enough to make him mad at first), they soon developed a style so stark and spare it left them in a pocket all their own–a pocket no hit novelty could ever lift them out of. If any song became a signature, recognizable to a literati beyond their core fan base, it was “Rank Stranger,” an Alfred Brumley tune they transformed into the kind of record that is bound to defy whatever you think can follow it. Ralph sang one line and a little harmony. It’s the line that made Carter’s lead, the loneliest sound otherwise imaginable to human ken, sound like Mel Torme.
Ralph Stanley was an inspired picker, a strong songwriter, a great ambassador, a non-pareil harmony singer. He left hundreds of fine records and live performances in dozens of settings (check his duet with Patty Loveless on “Pretty Polly” at the Opry some time).
But his entire spirit, everything he really was, was in that single line.
“Everybody I met, seemed to be a rank stranger.”
How do I know?
How does anybody know.
No strangers tonight, I reckon.