Ralph Stanley is a man of few words and short answers, and this doesn’t make him the ideal interview subject. But at 81 years old, he has earned the right to say as much or as little as he wants, and after over 60 years of playing music, he can be forgiven for not wanting to say it all again.Ralph Stanley is a man of few words and short answers, and this doesn’t make him the ideal interview subject. But at 81 years old, he has earned the right to say as much or as little as he wants, and after over 60 years of playing music, he can be forgiven for not wanting to say it all again. No doubt, he’s got plenty to talk about, from his boyhood in rural southwest Virginia to his years as half of bluegrass legends the Stanley Brothers and his reintroduction to a new generation of listeners as the mournful voice singing “O Death” on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Now the living embodiment of Appalachian mountain music, he still tours tirelessly and continues to use his band-once the music cradle of artists ranging from Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley to his own son and now 16-year-old grandson-to bring up the next generation. If you ask him, he’ll tell you all these things, but don’t expect him to elaborate.
So it must be nice to be able to tour with your grandson?
Yeah, I like that real good. He’s been playing with me a couple of years. He’s only 16 years old, and he’s just now getting material together.
Have the crowds at your shows changed much?
I’m having bigger crowds than I used to and different classes of people. Young and old, there’s a variety. I give a lot of credit to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and I think that got me out to a lot of new fans and listeners. And I recorded with a few country artists, and I think that helped me spread out, too.
Do you remember the first time you wanted to be a musician?
Well, it was a long time ago. It’s back when I was a teenager, maybe 11, 12 or 13. That was about the first time that I ever heard a radio. I got to liking it and me and my brother together decided that we’d like to do that together, if we could. We got a radio in 1939, and I would always listen to it, and there was country music on everyday somewhere. There wasn’t too much music around where I was raised. They liked it, but there wasn’t that much in that particular part of the world. It was hard back in those days. They had to work sometimes from daylight to dark. And some people like music but aren’t interested in playing it. It has changed a lot. Back in my days, there weren’t any paved roads. We didn’t have electricity back then.
Did it take you long to develop your own style?
Well, no. I think we had God-given talent. It don’t sound like anybody [else], and it was a natural sound that we had. I never was too good of a songwriter. I’ve written a few songs, but my brother was a better songwriter than I am. It took a few years.
How about your style of playing the banjo?
I first played clawhammer banjo, and then I played a two-finger, and then I heard the three-finger. I heard Earl Scruggs. I started to learn that, but I learned my way. I play three-finger, but it’s my way of playing. It’s not like his.
From what I understand, you come from a long line of banjo players.
A lot of them played the old-time clawhammer. My mother had 11 brothers and sisters, and every one of them played the old clawhammer style. I heard my mother play it, and I first started playing like her. Clawhammer don’t suit a lot of songs and singing, so I had to switch to the three-finger style.
How much of an influence did church music have on the way you developed your style?
I think the church and singing influenced us a lot. The singing goes back to the church. There wasn’t much music at all in our area. The church we went to did not use music, so we learned to sing a cappella.
Did you and your brother sing well together from the start?
We were real natural. We spoke our words alike, and we liked the same things, and it just fell into place. We were too young to sing much together in church, but we listened to it.
Was it difficult to find your own audience when you started out?
No. When we first started playing on the radio station in Bristol, Virginia and Tennessee, we started a new radio show called “Farm and Fun Time.” And first thing we knew, we were getting cards and letters by the sack full by fans requesting songs. We started right off with plenty of listeners. I don’t know how we got ‘em, but they appeared.
Do you remember the first time you heard Bill Monroe’s music?
About 1939, I’d say. Bill Monroe has always been my favorite, but I don’t sound a bit like Bill Monroe. I have my own sound. It’s old-time traditional music.