The music, made by a bunch of have-nots in a basement in a Washington, D.C., suburb, is bloodstained and macabre—a primitive racket. The graphic songs—tales of stabbings, shootings, and murder—are delivered with an unflinching fatalism, describing dirt-poor lives that are short, nasty, and brutish.
Soon after the recordings were made, one of the musicians was gunned down in front of his young son; another was locked up for assault; a third later made it big only to drink himself to death, literally—nearly two dozen shots of liquor in less than two hours.
These aren’t the exploits of contemporary rock thugs, but of Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys more than two decades ago. A portion of the story has now turned up on Rebel Records’ four-disc box set. More than just a side trip into Appalachia, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys 1971-1973 tells the saga of a great American singer, a late-blooming mystic who found his voice by conjuring the ghost of his dead brother, only to lose him again.
By the early ’70s, Ralph Stanley had toppled Bill Monroe, the king of bluegrass; he’d won a slew of awards and hit his peak as a solo artist, finally eclipsing his past fame as the quiet half of the legendary Stanley Brothers. This, despite the fact that Stanley scorned “bluegrass” as a misnomer for his singular sound; his touring station wagon carried on its rooftop a home-built wooden-box marquee: “Old Time Country Music.”
Stanley’s self-consciously archaic style achieved its greatest popularity in an unlikely era, when the progressive bluegrass movement was looking to contemporary pop for material. Oblivious to trends, Stanley dug deep into the traditional folk repertoire. While newgrassers crooned Beatles ditties and hillbilly caricatures like “Rocky Top,” Stanley revived ancient murder ballads and told the bloody story of “Pretty Polly.” His originals were of a piece, reflecting a fiercely independ-
ent mountain culture little changed over the centuries. In “Shotgun Slade,” he honors a young killer who murders railroad officials out to snatch the family land: “The sheriff didn’t even bother to put Shotgun in jail,” Stanley stoically sings.
These weren’t the songs of armchair romantics: More than even honky-tonk martyr Hank Williams, the Clinch Mountain Boys lived the songs they sang; ultimately, some fell prey to the violence that fueled the music.
Take Roy Lee Centers, the singer/guitarist from eastern Kentucky coal country. As a young man he migrated, like many mountain folk, to Ohio, where he worked a factory job and at night played beer joints full of homesick hillbillies. After joining Stanley in 1970, Centers moved back to Jackson in his native Breathitt County, nicknamed “Bloody” Breathitt for its rough and rowdy ways. Centers and his wife and young sons moved into a trailer park on Quicksand Road near the Jaxon Drive-In Theatre. That Roy Lee could make a living back home playing music didn’t sit well with some locals. Worse, he was schooling his 12-year-old Lennie in the same foolishness.
Billy Hurst, a local real estate developer and scion of a wealthy family, bore a grudge against the uppity Centers. They’d been friends for years, but the men squabbled over their sons, bragging about which boy was a better musician. Hurst, you see, was proudly grooming his own future bluegrasser—but it was generally agreed that Centers’ boy was in a class by himself.
In Breathitt County, petty arguments tend to end in bloodshed, and this one proved no different. It happened about 3:30 a.m. one May morning in 1974, after a night of music at a neighbor’s house party. Hurst and his wife Geraldine gave Centers and Lennie a ride home; according to newspaper reports, a fight erupted during the drive, and Hurst veered off Booneville Road onto the banks of Cane Creek. The spat spilled from the truck, and was resolved real quick—with two bullets from Hurst’s .38 in Centers’ face. The 29-year-old died instantly, unarmed and defenseless; worse, his son witnessed the slaying.
A fellow musician and friend interviewed in John Wright’s biography of Ralph Stanley, Take the High Way Home, tells it this way: “The guy picked Roy Lee and his son up in a truck, supposedly fairly harmlessly, going to give him a ride somewhere, and took him out in the country and pulled a gun, told Roy Lee to get out. And he got out and said he was going to draw down and shoot on him. And Lennie ran away and hid in the bushes—it was night, you know—in the dark, and listened to his daddy get shot.”
Hurst was convicted of the murder and sentenced to 10 years, but he never spent a day behind bars. Hurst had friends in high places; his uncle was a former sheriff. After an appeal, the once-convicted killer was returned to the bosom of his community. After all, wasn’t it Billy who built the Hurst Shopping Center, home to the area’s first supermarket, the Food Fair? And wasn’t Roy Lee really just a no-count, work-shirking guitar-picker? This was backwoods justice, Breathitt-style.
For Ralph Stanley, the murder was a double blow: He had lost not just a lead singer but the closest mortal reminder of his brother Carter; Centers’ vocal style was spookily similar to Carter’s, a warm baritone next to which Ralph’s chillingly lonesome tenor could find comfort. And because Roy Lee
wasn’t Carter, Ralph had sung with an abandon he’d never allowed himself with his brother.
Centers’ death effectively ended a remarkable three-year run that saw the Clinch Mountain Boys produce eight albums that became touchstones of modern traditional music. Now, Rebel has reissued this entire cache of nearly 100 songs, including a dozen previously unavailable in the U.S. The still-active Stanley has recorded dozens of albums since, but has never again reached such heights. (He came close with 1992’s Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, an all-star collaboration in which Stanley inspired stellar performances from country guest-stars like Dwight Yoakam and Vince Gill.)
The Rebel box remains a career high: At its center is Stanley’s reinvention of old-time string-band music—and his introduction of the a cappella gospel that’s become a bluegrass staple. In addition to Centers’ emergence as bluegrass’ premiere second-generation vocalist, though, is the first appearance of two teen-age sidemen who later had a profound impact on country music: Ricky Skaggs and the late Keith Whitley.
As with Centers’ slaying, Whitley’s 20-vodka-shots overdose doesn’t even rate a mention in the booklet that accompanies the set. (Whitley OD’d just as he’d found mainstream success as a smooth Nashville crooner.) In his otherwise excellent liner notes, music scholar and WAMU-FM DJ Dick Spottswood adheres to the repressed standards of the bluegrass community. The culture of denial pervading mountain life has seeped into the tight-lipped, puritanical coverage of the music, whitewashing its darker side of feuding and jealousy.
One obvious example is the spotless public persona of Bill Monroe, whose tyrannical rule over his bandmembers is as unspoken as it is legendary: Dozens of embittered
ex-Bluegrass Boys are waiting for the old despot to die before going public with their sordid accounts. Until then, Monroe remains bluegrass’ saintly patrician, more mandolin-wooden than human. Monroe’s contribution to a future Bluegrass Babylon: In 1989, his girlfriend filed charges against the 77-year-old alleging that he beat her with a Bible after she tried to make him swear on it that he was not cheating on her. The bizarre assault—charges were later dropped, of course—made more noise in the supermarket tabloids than in the bluegrass rags.
Spottswood also holds to the official line on the demise of Carter Stanley in 1966, asserting that it was “the climax to health problems which had plagued him for years and made him professionally unreliable.” In fact, Carter succumbed to a liver ailment after years of severe alcohol abuse.
It may be hard to imagine now, but bluegrass was a truly revolutionary music back in the ’40s, when it was forged in the fracturing of another country brother team. After a nasty breakup (and more than a few fistfights) with his brother Charlie, Bill Monroe had launched a brash young ensemble that infused country with blues rhythms and jazz virtuosity. The synthesis, later named for Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, was at once traditional and avant-garde. Still rural-based in repertoire and sensibility, this so-called “folk music in overdrive” often boasted a breakneck tempo that combined the nervous energy of a spooked horse and the momentum of a diesel truck: Monroe’s hyperactive update of “Muleskinner Blues” sounded like Jimmie Rodgers on amphetamines.
Though at first a typical bluegrass act, the Stanley Brothers and their group, the Clinch Mountain Boys, soon outgrew their incarnation as a Monroe covers band. For inspiration, they turned to their native Clinch Mountain region in southwest Virginia, home to Dock Boggs and the Carter Family. In a five-year burst of creativity, Carter Stanley penned dozens of classics: Undermining the genre’s standard nostalgia, his songs caught the horrors of pastoral poverty: In “The Fields Have Turned Brown,” the narrator returns to the mountains after years of wandering, only to find his home place deserted and his parents dead. While Carter experimented with the genre’s conventions, Ralph handled the bloody old ballads they’d learned as boys.
By the early ’50s, the Stanley sound—Carter’s lead echoed ever so faintly by Ralph’s hill-holler harmony—was in full blossom; primitive, yes, but by no means unpracticed: The deepest folk-music impulses were honed to a perfectly artful pitch. Along with the Delmore Brothers (who actually sound more dog-tired weary than anything else), it remains among the most mournful country music ever recorded.
But just a decade later, the Stanleys seemed to have lost their way. Exiled from the majors to two-bit, hit-desperate labels, they were forced into gimmicky predicaments, such as an absurd cover of the R&B tune, “Finger Popping Time.” If Carter’s booze-battered voice and soused performances sabotaged the ’60s-era Stanley Brothers, his death at 41 nearly ended Ralph’s career altogether. For two decades, Carter had been the big brother in more than just years: He was the act’s lead singer and songwriter, as well as its charismatic showman.
But for many fans, it was Ralph’s keening, pinched-throat vocals that had made the Stanleys so distinctive. Even in the earliest country music singers there was a hint of vaudeville, or at least an I’ve-seen-the-world swagger. As a teen, though, Stanley was already croaking like an old man who’d never left his dark hollow: Echoing a miner’s wheeze or a sinner’s cry for redemption, there is something mythic in Ralph’s ragged wail—something akin to Virgil’s hoarse, infinitely sad voice when he speaks to Dante after centuries of silence. “It’s a style as old as time,” writes Spottswood, “with roots in both white and black gospel and in the African, Judaic, and Islamic modal chanting traditions of the old world.”
In 1966, with the bluegrass market seemingly dead, the
37-year-old Ralph nevertheless forged ahead: Carter’s death freed his shy kid brother to take the spotlight and fully return to his mountain roots. After several years of struggling, Ralph assembled the band that would bring him glory. Along the way, he lost the talented Larry Sparks to solo aspirations, but he found Roy Lee Centers. He recruited fiddler Curly Ray Cline and bass player Jack Cooke, old-school musicians who did as they were told—no showboat solos of the sort that Bill Monroe encouraged. And for supporting players there came a pair of Kentucky mountain boys, Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley—teen prodigies who had mastered the classic Stanley sound. Absent, except on the rarest of occasions, was the scepter of Bill Monroe, the mandolin.
In retrospect, the time was right for Stanley’s retro-revolution. By the end of the ’60s, bluegrass had made a comeback on the heels of Flatt and Scruggs’ belated commercial success and the emergence of festivals that brought the music directly to its devoted, if far-flung, audience. Even as hordes of Yankee hippies threatened to turn the festivals into feel-good love-ins, there was still a revered place for Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys. Unlike Monroe’s workshoplike onstage appearances (grooming another batch of Bluegrass Boys), Stanley’s band—sporting the somber, dark suits of country preachers—cast a spell. Critic Robert Cantwell wrote: “The performance of this group became a kind of seance, annealing the vocal sounds of three stages of the brothers’ career into a single complex audial image: the ethereal harmonies of the young duet; the repining voice of the dead Carter Stanley, eerily lodged in the throat of his replacement, Roy Lee Centers; and finally the voice of the surviving brother, the cry of a vendor of sorrows.”
In 1971, Stanley signed a deal with Rebel Records, an independent label that Dick Freeland had launched from his home in Mount Rainier, Md., just across the District line. Boasting progressive, popular acts, Rebel had become the premier bluegrass label as Washington—long a country-music mecca— now established itself as the bluegrass capital, home base for hot Rebel groups like the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene.
Freeland gave Stanley free rein, and the result of this newfound freedom makes up the bulk of the Rebel box set. Stanley returned to the songs his mama and daddy taught him, not as museum pieces but as cherished links to his past. Mining his vast repertoire of traditional songs and Carter originals, Stanley presented a mannered, meta-Stanley sound.
Ralph’s formerly hesitant lead vocals now carried many of the songs, backed by bare-bones, stripped-down arrangements. If Centers couldn’t improve on such Carter-penned tunes as “The Fields Have Turned Brown,” and “The Lonesome River,” he was maturing into a songwriter in his own right. “I even loved the ground you walked on,” he mourns in “All the Love I Had Is Gone,” a loping lamentation of heartbreak.
Displaying none of bluegrass’ hip sheen, Stanley’s new music instead shared the charred, sepia-aged tones of The Band, another group of self-conscious outcasts haunted by the American landscape and weighted down by its mysterious past. “Shout Little Lulie” is an instrumental Stanley had learned as a tot from his mother; in this tune, he reintroduced the clawhammer-style banjo he’d forsaken for the flashy, three-fingered picking that Earl Scruggs had made the bluegrass standard. “Lulie” ’s clomping, mulish beat resonates at a 19th-century pace; Stanley’s banjo is more concerned with sustaining texture than lauching volleys of notes (Is it any wonder that another mountain music—that of Tibetan Buddhist monks—boasts similar circular drones?) as if revealing “bluegrass” once and for all as a pointless race for thoroughbred virtuosos.
The general exuberance of the music—this is, after all, a classic ensemble in its prime—can’t disguise the fact that death hovers over this collection like not merely a shroud but a whole goddamn funeral tent: In song after song, Stanley assays the wages of sin in a world where no one gets out alive. The joyous warbler in “Little Birdie” only reminds him, Keatslike, of his own impending death. In “East Virginia Blues,” he’s forced to flee his bride-to-be because her mother threatens him with a dagger. He murders “Pretty Polly,” stabbing her “bosom, as white as any snow” after she refuses his marriage proposal. In “Little Glass of Wine,” his belle postpones the wedding, so he stalks the bar where she’s dancing with a new beau; he poisons their drinks and watches them slowly die, all the while confessing his crime. But he’s also “A Little Boy Called Joe,” an orphan adrift in a poverty-scarred land. And he’s the “Man of Constant Sorrow” who’s seen trouble all his days, moaning in Old Testament parlance, “No pleasure here on earth I find.”
Whether traditional or brand new, Stanley sings as if every song is old as fate itself. The lone Hank Williams cover is the dirge, “Six More Miles,” about a man going to bury his dead lover; Hank Sr. delivered the lyrics with a rocker’s anger, lashing out against his ruin: For Stanley, it’s all grim resignation, a sad ending to another bad day in the hills.
Fortunately for Stanley, there is some comfort from the ceaselessness of dying, a salvation found in the Gospel. Indeed, it’s not surprising that the first Rebel release featured exclusively religious material; many still consider Cry From the Cross the pinnacle of bluegrass gospel.
The Stanley Brothers were renowned for “Rank Strangers” and Carter’s “The White Dove,” among many religious classics. But the a cappella style that Ralph introduced in 1971’s Cry From the Cross was unprecedented, and took his back-to-the-roots strategy to its logical extreme: This spare, unadorned singing was what Stanley had heard as a boy in primitive Baptist churches that ban instruments from their services. Led by Ralph’s lined-out lead vocals supported by Centers, Skaggs, and Whitley, Cross introduced several songs in this goose-bumps quartet style, including “Bright Morning Star,” which is still often sung at mountain funerals.
But the most haunting example remains the quartet’s “Village Church Yard,” which appeared on The Old County Church in late ’71. Nearly six minutes long (twice the length of most hymns), this lament is as hard-bitten as any sacred music around: Ralph had lost his mother, Lucy Smith Stanley, that year. In “Yard,” he lingers at her grave, grieving for her departed spirit. He relishes their final deathbed encounter, when she whispers of someday. Night falls, and he still broods in the darkness, wishing that he was buried next to her “in the cold and silent ground, and no more be left alone.”
Two members of this ghostly quartet are now gone; another, Skaggs, made a Faustian pact that he’s now repaying with infomercials on The Nashville Network. Ralph Stanley alone remains, singing the old songs the old way.