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One County Over: Ralph Stanley Sings the Music of the Carter Family

by Derek Halsey
May, 2006


AP, Sara, and Maybelle Carter did not invent country music. The music had been evolving in the Appalachian Mountains for generations before the trio made their fateful trip to Bristol, Tennessee in 1927 to record their first sides. While there had been recordings made of country and string band music earlier, Charlie Poole’s recordings in New York City in 1926 and Cal Stewart and Fred Van Eps recordings in 1907 and 1911 respectively come to mind, it was the Bristol sessions that changed the face of the genre. Ralph Sylvester Peer, representing the most dominant record company in the world at that time in the Viktor Talking Machine Company, put the word out that he would be in Bristol to find the best of the mountain folk musicians. During those ten days of tryouts and recording sessions, there was magic and history made when the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers walked in the door.

The Carter Family lived in the mountains of Scott County, Virginia. One county over in 1927, in neighboring Dickinson County, a one-year old Ralph Stanley and his older brother Carter were listening to the sounds of their mother play the banjo. By 1946 the legacy and the music of the Carter Family was known around the nation. With their large repertoire of original songs and a keen mind for promotion and business, they were a big part of country music staking its claim in the larger world outside of the mountains. 1946 also marked the year that Ralph and Carter would form the Stanley Brothers, an important and integral group that helped shape bluegrass and mountain music for generations to come. Unfortunately, Carter Stanley suffered a premature death in 1966. Since then, Ralph Stanley has kept the music going, becoming an elder statesman in the American roots music realm. In 2006, at 79 years of age, Ralph has gone full circle with a new album called A Distant Land To Roam; Songs Of The Carter Family.

So, the question is, did a young Ralph Stanley and the original generation of the Carter Family ever cross paths? Absolutely. “I grew up in Dickinson County and they were from Scott County. I’d say it’s probably fifty miles over there, maybe not that far,” remembers Stanley. “I don’t remember the year, but I know that we used to do a show on WCYB, a radio station in Bristol, Virginia up there, called ‘Farm and Fun Time’ and I know that AP did a fifteen minute spot on the same station there for a little while. I don’t remember whether that was the first time I met him or not, but I know I met him then. And, the Stanley Brothers played a show for him one time. He’d built him a little park over where they call it the Carter Fold now. He just built a little stage outside, up in the field there. He had some Sunday afternoon shows and we played for him one Sunday and I was pretty well acquainted with AP. I met Maybelle, and I think I met Sara, so I think I’ve met all three of the originals. I talked to AP some when we played over there that day, and then along at the radio station, I talked to him some. I don’t remember whether we talked about music or what, it’s been so long. That’s been, Lord I don’t know how long ago. Forty years at least.”

AP Carter had a reputation of being a talented yet peculiar man. Stanley puts it this way, “He was country just like I am. You might of called him that, maybe just a little bit. He was an old timer, and I believe he was a straight shooter. He told you what he thought. I’ve heard that he did a lot of traveling all over the country, Scott County and I don’t know where all, and would stop at houses and collected a lot of songs. And then he wrote a lot, I guess. They had a nice repertoire of songs.” This large repertoire of Carter Family songs came in handy when this new album by Stanley started to take shape. The good news about the album is that oft-picked Carter Family songs like “Keep On The Sunny Side,” “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” and “Wildwood Flower” were overlooked in favor of other lesser known gems such as “Little Moses,” “Keep On The Firing Line,” and “Distant Land To Roam.”

“Well, I went through a lot of the Carter Family songs,” explains Stanley. “I’d heard most of their songs, a lot of them, anyway. I picked out the ones that I liked. There were some that I liked that I didn’t think I could do justice, so I picked the ones that I liked that I thought I could do a fair job on, to do it right.” One song on this new CD may be the most powerful one Stanley has recorded in years, a nearly a capella take on “Motherless Children” which rivals “O Death” in its resonance. With a lone and droning fiddle in the background, Stanley delivers an exceptional and soulful performance on this tune utilizing a new arrangement that was his idea. “I changed that around to an a cappella, you know, and thought I’d try it that way. I like it that way, and actually I like it better than when I recorded it. The more I hear it, the better I like it.”

When you record an album of Carter Family songs, the focus will almost always be on the guitar player. Maybelle Carter’s unique way of playing guitar fleshed out the Carter Family sound and influenced practically every country music guitarist to come along since then. “Maybelle played a little bit different,” says Stanley. “And on this tribute to the Carter Family, James Shelton played a lot like Mother Maybelle on that. We tried to get that record to sound, as much as we could, like the Carter Family without changing my style. It just fit right in.”

James Alan Shelton has been Ralph Stanley’s guitarist for a lot of years now. He follows in the tradition of legendary Stanley Brothers guitarist George Shuffler, whose ‘cross-picking’ style of guitar broke a lot of ground for the guitar becoming a lead instrument in bluegrass music. Shelton knew that his guitar playing would be looked at on this new album, yet the style of Mother Maybelle is one that he has long been familiar with. “I’m from Scott County, I grew up on the Carter Family, so this was a project that was near and dear to my heart,” says Shelton. “When I was first learning to play I would buy the Carter Family records to learn Maybelle’s guitar. Back then I was just learning, and I could relate to the way she played. Being from the same part of the country, it just sort of fell into place, I guess. Back then you could buy those Carter Family records from the budget bin. They had them for $2.98 or something. I’d listen to it over and over.”

While Mother Maybelle’s guitar technique seems simple and sparse at first listen, there is a whole lot more going on there than meets the ear. Her 1929 Gibson L-5 guitar created a sound that has been sought after since. “The hard thing about it was that they were tuned so low,” explains Shelton. “Her guitar sounded so deep, and I think they tuned their instruments way down low. You have to allow for that and transfer that over to modern day standard tuning. But most of the stuff that Maybelle played, a big majority of it, she played out of the C position on the guitar. I don’t know how much she used a capo back then, but I imagine that a lot of times she would tune her guitar up or down as she needed to get into a different key. I don’t really know.”

Continues Shelton, “Maybelle, to me, she wrote the book on country guitar playing. I feel like it all branched off from what she started. Earl Scruggs told me, he said, ‘I always liked Maybelle’s playing,’ and if you listen to Scruggs, you’ll hear a love of Maybelle in his guitar playing. George Shuffler, when he got with the Stanley Brothers, I think his cross-picking style is rooted in the Maybelle style. It’s about the main melody, you know? They work that cross-picking roll around the melody. But the main thing is, you’ve got to play the song. You’ve got to play the tune. That was Maybelle’s strong point. She always played the melody. She was great. She played the melody and the rhythm too, so she was kind of a self-contained band. She figured out a way to play the lead melody while keeping a rhythm going. She used her thumb and her finger a lot. That is the original working style of guitar playing for country musicians. It carries on today. I use her style all the time in my work. It’s more complicated than it sounds. She played the right notes, the right melody notes. She just didn’t play something to get through it. She made it say the words. A big part of what Ralph wants his musicians to do is to play the instrument just like it is sung. In other words, make the instrument say the words.”

The rest of the musicians featured on “A Distant Land To Roam; Songs Of The Carter Family” consists of other members of Ralph Stanley’s band including Jack Cooke, James Alan Shelton, Steve Sparkman, Ralph Stanley II, and former Clinch Mountain Boys John Rigsby on mandolin and Todd Meade on fiddle. Adding some bass is Dennis Crouch of the Nashville Bluegrass Band. The executive producer on this project is none other than T-Bone Burnett, who put together the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack and has his first solo album in 14 years out now as well. The producing duties went to Bob Neuwirth and Larry Ehrlich. To further the ‘Carter authenticity’ of this endeavor, musician, folklorist, and New Lost City Ramblers founding member Mike Seeger was brought in to play autoharp. Mother Maybelle was known for her autoharp playing as well as her guitar and banjo work. Seeger fit the bill due to his proficiency on the instrument, and the fact that he spent time with members of the original Carter Family and the Stanley Brothers many years ago.

“It was great fun playing autoharp with Ralph Stanley. It was totally unexpected, and it was a pleasure working with those guys,” says Seeger. About 45 years ago he found himself an unexpected member of the Stanley Brothers band for one night. “I substituted with Chick Stripling once when Chick was under the weather. He played bass with them. That was back at the University of Chicago in 1961. Chick was not able to play. I’m not a very good bass player, so I basically just held the bass up. (laughs)” Five years later Seeger was traveling Europe with the Stanley Brothers near the end of Carter’s life. “We toured together in 1966,” he says. “We toured Europe and went to England and Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, either Holland or Denmark. I can’t remember. We did a TV show in Germany with Carter and Ralph. Carter was not well at that point, but during the days when everything was calm, he was so wonderful to talk to. He was a very soulful, thoughtful, reflective person. And, he was just a great singer.”

Several decades later, Mike Seeger and Ralph Stanley would collaborate yet again. “I played one song with Ralph on my ‘Third Annual Farewell Reunion’ album on Rounder Records. I got him to fingerpick ‘East Virginia Blues’ on the mandolin. He played three-finger style mandolin, and we sang it together. He doesn’t do many like that, but it is a wonderful thing he did.”

As for meeting the original Carter Family, Seeger missed getting acquainted with AP by a few years. “I never met AP, just Sara and Maybelle,” he says. “Wish I had. Absolutely, I would have loved to have known him.” Seeger also agrees on the influence of Mother Maybelle’s style of guitar playing. “It adds a strong feeling of melody and rhythm, both. She was a very smooth musician as well. At the time, when she first recorded, people were playing in a style a little bit like hers, but they didn’t put it together in the same way she did, and not as smooth as she did. Because of her personality, too, between her personality and the recordings, and the actual music on those records, she certainly was one of the most influential country guitar players. She was very natural and humble. She had a nice, quiet sense of humor, and solid. She was a very solid person. She was a very strong, solid musician. There is definitely power there. You don’t have to be real complex and have notes all over the place to play solid, good music.”


The original Carter Family trio of AP, Sara, and Mother Maybelle are long gone now. Janette Carter, the last surviving child of AP and Sara, died earlier this year. For years Janette ran the Carter Family Fold Performance Center in Hiltons, Virginia. The weekly Saturday night performances at the Carter Fold will continue. One county over lives Ralph Stanley, who runs his own festival and museum near his home in the Clinch Mountains. He is 79 years old now, yet still tours many nights a year.

“It’s his life. It’s all he knows,” says James Alan Shelton. “I think he enjoys it. I know it’s hard on him at his age. He’s 79 years old and has had open-heart surgery. But I don’t think you could take Ralph off the road and say, ‘You can’t play anymore.’ I think he would miss it too much. I think it is so much a part of his life, it’s just second nature to him to be on the road. He just stays Ralph. If you look back over all he’s done, I mean, it is amazing the body of work that man has put behind him. And so much of it is not good, it’s great, and it will stand up forever. If you listen to the stuff that he cut in the early 1970’s when he first got on Rebel Records, and he had those great bands with Roy Lee Centers, Keith Whitley, and Ricky Skaggs, that stuff is hotter than a firecracker. Whatever accolades Ralph has received, he deserves all that and more. I think his contributions to music is just so above and beyond most people. The things that he’s done probably won’t be measured out until after he’s gone. But when it’s all said and done, Ralph Stanley will cast a long shadow on this music.”

Buy Ralph Stanley's A Distant Land To Roam at Amazon.com

Being a part of the 7-million copy selling “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack a few years ago breathed new life into Ralph Stanley’s career. Now, his style of music is as popular as ever. “I don’t know whether I play bluegrass or whether I play old time country or folk or what,” says Stanley. “But I know that mine is just old time mountain music. I think tradition is real important because this coming October will make me 60 years in the business, and I’ve always stuck with that kind of music. When people hear me they don’t have to ask or look to see who I am. They know when I hit the first lick, they’ll tell you, they’ll know it’s Ralph Stanley. And I think that’s very important, and I think that’s the reason people respect me like they do. That’s why I’ve stayed around that long. Another reason, I guess, is that there’s not too much of the real, old traditional music anymore. It’s just music that gets in your soul. It’s got a feeling to it, and it’s true to life, and it’s got all kinds of songs, you know. Gospel, murder ballads, love ballads and all of that. It’s good, simple music that you can’t resist.”

While this post- O Brother wave of popularity means that Ralph Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys get to play larger music halls and arenas on occasion, he still takes the time to play the small town venues that have been his bread and butter throughout his whole career. “The fans are what make you. I play a lot of places like that, where people wouldn’t have a chance to see you if you didn’t. I’ve played a lot of concerts like that just to meet some of my old friends and so forth. Fans are what made you, like I said, and I haven’t forgot that.”

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