Ralph Stanley - banjo, lead vocals; Melvin Goins - guitar, vocals; Larry Sparks - guitar, vocals; Curly Ray Cline - fiddle, vocals; Tom Morgan - bass, vocals
Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys certainly deserve all accolades as the originators of bluegrass, but their closest rivals, the Stanley Brothers (Carter and Ralph) are equally important in its development. Born and raised in rural southwestern Virginia, the brothers grew up on a farm in the Clinch Mountains and were exposed to music early on. Their father sang songs like "Man of Constant Sorrow" and "Pretty Polly" in church, and their mother often entertained at local events playing banjo. This exposure and listening to the Grand Ole Opry on local radio formed the basis of their early musical education. Carter sang and played guitar and when Ralph learned to play clawhammer style banjo from their mother, the brothers began performing locally as well. Upon graduation from high school in 1945, Ralph was inducted into the army for a year. Upon returning home, he immediately began performing with Carter, who by then was performing with the Blue Ridge Mountain Boys. The following year, the Stanley Brothers struck out on their own, forming the first lineup of the Clinch Mountain Boys.
They initially drew on local traditional music, which featured the minor-key singing style of the Primitive Baptist Universalist Church, the sweet family-style harmonies of the Carter Family, and of course, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs. They soon became popular radio performers and began attracting attention for their buoyant, melodic style. In need of original material, the brothers began writing in 1947 and 1948, and their songs displayed a distinct melodic flair, with Ralph becoming a remarkably gifted singer, who literally defined the high lonesome singing style. Ralph also created and developed an original style of three-finger banjo playing, distinguished by incredibly fast forward rolls led by the index finger. They became well known for crafting memorable lyrics with inescapably compelling melodies. With the power of Columbia Records behind them, the Stanley Brothers would become one of the most popular and prolific acts on the label up through 1966, when their massive success and grueling schedule caught up with Carter, who died from cirrhosis of the liver.
Stricken with grief, Ralph faced an incredibly sad and daunting situation—how and if he should carry on alone. Thousands of letters of encouragement poured in and Ralph revived the Clinch Mountain Boys, which grew to become one of the most respected outfits in all of bluegrass. They honored Carter by performing and further developing his songs, but Ralph would go on to become a prolific musician on his own, eventually writing several hundred songs and banjo instrumentals.
Here we present a wonderful example of Ralph Stanley, during one of his earliest outings with the revived Clinch Mountain Boys, performing live at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival during the turbulent summer of 1968. Following a humorous monologue about George Hamilton IV by George Wein and an eloquent introduction from Ralph Rinzler, Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys take the Newport stage. They kick things off with a nod to brother Carter, by performing the Stanley Brothers original, "How Mountain Girls Can Love." The recording mix is superb, allowing listeners an intimate listen to Ralph's killer banjo technique and a perfect example of his "high lonesome" singing style at a quick tempo. After a few band introductions, another great example follows in a much slower mournful manner, as Ralph treats the audience to a penetrating take on the song his father so often sang in church, "Man Of Constant Sorrow."
Next up Stanley and the Boys display their instrumental prowess by segueing "Pretty Polly" directly into "Wild Bill Jones." There's plenty of hot pickin' here with superb stylish vocals. Ralph and guitarist Larry Sparks team up next for a vocal duet on "The Hills Of Rowan County," a tale of feuding and fighting in rural Tennessee. This is another excellent example of the mournful sound that defines Ralph Stanley, but with lovely harmonies from Sparks and several sweet solo breaks from Sparks and Curly Ray Cline.
Cline's fiddle playing is showcased on the next number, a delightful high energy reading of "Sally Goodin." With limited time, Stanley expresses his gratitude to the audience before closing the set with a show-stopping example of his clawhammer banjo technique on "Little Birdie."
As this set conveys, Ralph Stanley's solo work, in direct contrast to the sweet, buoyant style of the greatest Stanley Brothers songs, was often darker and foreboding. Ralph's perfect vocal pitch and poignant, mournful style would trail blaze a sound that countless musicians would emulate, including Jerry Garcia, who was an obsessive fan and follower. The Clinch Mountain Boys would became a training ground for many of the best young musicians of the bluegrass revival era of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a tradition that is still going strong to the present day.
Written by Alan Bershaw