Ralph Stanley and Clinch Mountain Boys – Carter Fold

When George Clooney opened his mouth to sing “Man of Constant Sorrow” in the supremely satisfying film “O Brother Where Art Thou,” it was the voice of Ralph Stanley that we heard. Now at 85 years old, Dr. Stanley still tours.  Seeing him at the Carter Fold was a stroke of genius and luck.

The Carter Fold is nestled in the southwest corner of Virginia, in an Appalachian holler that is arguably the birthplace of American country music. When AC Carter came down from the hills with his wife and her cousin to record a few songs in nearby Bristol, TN the face of American music would change forever. Their recordings brought the sounds of mountain music to a wider audience, and performances on Mexican radio station XERA blasted the Carters across much of the USA.

Years later when Johnny Cash married into the Carter family (think “Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire”), an even broader audience discovered ‘old time’ music.  The 1972 sprawling and ambitious 3 record collection spearheaded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band gathered the cream of the original performers, literally keeping the flame alive with “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”

When T-Bone Burnett was asked by the Coen Brothers to produce the soundtrack to “O Brother” Burnett likewise blended first generation and contemporary artists.  The result was a Grammy and more than 11 million units shifted, a factoid Dr Stanley mentioned at the Carter Fold.

Dr Stanley travels with his grandson’s band, which takes the bulk of the performance duties. But the commanding stage presence of the elder statesman kept the audience of several hundred basically spellbound.  He slashed away at his banjo for one song, which was the cue for the flatfooters of all ages to come up to the edge of the stage and dance. His solo a capella rendition of “O Death” was haunting. The song was especially poignant with its refrain of asking death to delay a visit for one more year; several times form the stage the bass player reminded audiences of next year’s eponymous bluegrass festival.

Ralph Stanley (second from right) photo by Brad Auerbach

Ralph Stanley (second from right) photo by Brad Auerbach

Any lover of true Americana roots music would do well to plan a trip to this region. In addition to the obligatory drive down the “Crooked Road” to the Carter Fold, time is well spent in Abingdon, VA.  In addition to the delightful Barter Theatre, the newly opened Heartwood is a showcase for the neighboring 19 counties’ artisans of all stripes.  Wood workers, luthiers, painters and sculptors are on display under one roof.  Indeed, the roof is a cleverly designed split barn motif, a modern capturing of the roots of this purely American music style.

The Carter Family Fold http://www.carterfamilyfold.org/
Dr Ralph Stanley Bluegrass Festival http://www.drralphstanleyfestival.com/index.html
Barter Theatre http://www.bartertheatre.com/
Heartwood http://www.heartwoodvirginia.org/

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.