Pioneering Bluegrass Musician Ralph Stanley
Bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley. He came to fame late in life when his music was featured on the triple-platinum soundtrack of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? Stanley sings and plays banjo. He won two Grammys this year for his performance of "O Death" on the O Brother record. At age 75, Stanley has just released a self-titled CD and continues to tour. He's recorded over 170 albums in total, and has been performing continuously since 1946.
Other segments from the episode on July 15, 2002
DATE July 15, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Ralph Stanley discusses his music, his life and being a
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Singer and banjo player Ralph Stanley is a bluegrass pioneer who's been making
records for more than 50 years. But it's only in the past couple of years
that his music has become a pop phenomenon. On the soundtrack of "O Brother,
Where Art Thou?" Stanley sang the mournful solo "Oh, Death," introducing
millions of listeners to his high, lonesome sound. That soundtrack became an
unprecedented success for folk music, winning five Grammys, including album of
the year, and selling more than five million copies. Ralph Stanley's vocal
solo won the Grammy for best male country vocal performance.
Now in his '70s, Stanley is in the middle of the Down From the Mountain
concert tour which grew out of the "O Brother" soundtrack. Two years ago he
received the Living Legend medal from the Library of Congress.
Ralph Stanley first started recording in the late '40s as the younger half of
the Stanley Brothers. His brother Carter died in 1966. Since 1967, Ralph has
performed with his group the Clinch Mountain Boys. Now he has a new CD
produced by singer/songwriter T-Bone Burnett, who also produced the "O
Brother" soundtrack. Before we meet Ralph Stanley, here's the opening track.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. RALPH STANLEY (Musician): (Singing) Oh, lift him up, that's all. Lift
him up in his word. If you tell the name of Jesus everywhere, if you keep his
name a-ringing everywhere that you go, he will draw men unto him.
When he asked her for some water, her sins she tried to hide. She commenced
telling the Savior all about race pride. But, woman, if you own in you the
gift of God, I can't a-draw men unto me.
Oh, lift him up, that's all. Lift him up in his word. If you tell the name
of Jesus everywhere, if you keep his name a-ringing everywhere that you go, he
will draw men unto him.
GROSS: That's Ralph Stanley form his new CD called "Ralph Stanley."
Ralph Stanley, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's wonderful to have you here. What's
different for you about this new CD, about either the songs or the musicians
playing with you?
Mr. STANLEY: I have different musicians than my regular band because the
songs are much older than I've been used to doing, and they needed just a
little bit different timing in the music. And that's the reason why that I
got a different band.
GROSS: Now this record was produced by T-Bone Burnett, who also produced the
music for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Have you gone in different directions
working with him or seen your own music differently at all by what you were
working with him?
Mr. STANLEY: Well, just the record, just this new CD, you know, I changed--as
T-Bone said I went backward to go forward. You know, I guess that makes
sense. What I mean is I sang a little bit more back, you know. Some of the
songs, I'd say, are--T-Bone said three or 400 years old, and I never did sing
songs like that before. They're a little bit more, you know, older and sound
GROSS: And you like singing them?
Mr. STANLEY: I love singing them.
GROSS: Now I want to ask you a little bit about "Oh, Death," which was the
song you sang on "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" How did you first start singing
Mr. STANLEY: I recorded "Oh, Death" twice, once in the '70s and once in the
'60s, but it was recorded different. It was recorded with music and a trio
singing it. So when T-Bone called me in to do this "Oh, Death," why, he had
an arrangement with just to use a banjo in it. And so I learned that way and
sung it for T-Bone. And then I told him that I had a different arrangement
I'd like to try and see what happened, and so I sung this version that was
a cappella. And I hadn't sung but a couple of verses till he said, `That's
fine. That's what we want.'
GROSS: Now the church that you grew up in, the Baptist church that you grew
up in, didn't allow instruments to be played in church. Did you sing a
cappella a lot in church?
Mr. STANLEY: I certainly did. Yeah. They don't allow music in the church.
They don't have anything against music. I'm a member of the Premonent Baptist
Church(ph), and they will buy every CD that I have released, but they don't
want me to bring the instruments in the church.
GROSS: Now what have you always liked about a cappella singing?
Mr. STANLEY: Well, you don't have anything to bother you. You know, if you
use an instrument, why, you have to stay on perfect timing. And if you do a
cappella--I'm so bad. Just wonder, you know, maybe I'll sing one verse this
way and one verse another, and if you're doing it a cappella, you don't have
to keep any time. You can just go out as far as you want to with it.
GROSS: I guess you could bend the notes in whatever direction you want to,
Mr. STANLEY: Yeah, that's right. Yeah. Mm-hmm. That's what I like to do.
GROSS: Now this thing about not having instruments allowed in the church--how
do you feel about that since, I mean, you're a banjo player as well as a
singer? Do you wish that you could play, or that other people could play
instruments in church?
Mr. STANLEY: Not really. You know, the top songs that they sing in the
Premonent Baptist Church don't really fit an instrument 'cause that's the way
they sing. Like I was telling you, you know, they just bend it and twist it
or however they want to sing it.
GROSS: Is there a lot of harmony singing?
Mr. STANLEY: No, they don't do any harmony. The ladies, they sing a part,
and then the men, they sing the same part, but it's all lead, but the way they
sing it, it blends in. It's really beautiful.
GROSS: And do you know the reason for not allowing instruments? Is it a
purely musical reason or is there a theological reason for not having any?
Mr. STANLEY: I really don't know about that. I'd say it's just a tradition
that's been handed down, maybe.
Mr. STANLEY: I don't know.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Well, why don't we hear the a cappella version of
"Oh, Death" that you recorded for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" And this is
(Soundbite of "Oh, Death")
Mr. STANLEY: (Singing) Oh, death. Oh, death. Won't you spare me o'er till
another year. Well, what is this that I can't see with ice-cold hands takin'
hold of me? Well, I am death, none can excel. I'll open the door to heaven
Oh, death, someone would pray, could you wait to call me another day? The
children prayed. The preacher preached. Time and mercy is out of your reach.
I'll fix your feet till you can't walk. I'll lock your jaw till you can't
talk. I'll close your eyes so you can't see. This very hour, come and go
Death, I come to take the soul...
GROSS: That's Ralph Stanley from the soundtrack of the film "O Brother, Where
Art Thou?" Ralph Stanley has a new solo CD, which is called "Ralph Stanley."
You have what's often described as that lonesome sound, or that high lonesome
sound. That describes your sound, but does it describe your place in the
world at all? I mean, do you think of yourself as feeling that kind of
lonesomeness, or is that just...
Mr. STANLEY: Well...
Mr. STANLEY: Well, that lonesome sound, you can't learn that.
Mr. STANLEY: That's just got to be born and bred in you. And it's a gift
that God, I think has given me, and he means for me to use that, maybe for
some purpose. You know, it might change somebody. I've gotten many of a
letter and a phone call from people saying that that sound had caused them,
you know, to change their life and join the church. And I just sort of
believe that gift was given to me for me to use for that purpose.
GROSS: Would you described the part of Virginia that you grew up in?
Mr. STANLEY: I grew up down in the hills of Virginia. I can be in Kentucky
in 20 minutes, Tennessee in 20 minutes or in the state of West Virginia in 20
minutes. And it's down in the Appalachian Mountains down there. And it's
sort of a poor country. Most of the livelihood is coal mining and logging,
working in the woods and things like that. Most people has a hard life down
GROSS: And how did your family make a living when you were growing up?
Mr. STANLEY: My father was a logger. He cut timber and hauled it out of the
woods and had a saw mill. He sawed it into lumber. And, you know, the mines
needed things they call timbers and the callers(ph) and so forth. And they
use callers on the railroad track to put the rails on. And that was his
occupation, just a sawmill man and a logger.
GROSS: Did he have all of his fingers, or did he lose any of them in
Mr. STANLEY: No. He never did do any of the work. He was the boss, so he
hired men to do all of that. He never did do any of the work.
GROSS: So he must have made a decent living.
Mr. STANLEY: Yeah. He did. We were maybe just a little bit ahead of maybe
some of the neighbors and the folks. He did well with it.
GROSS: And would you describe the church that you went to? You talked a
little bit about the music in it, but what was the church like physically?
Mr. STANLEY: Well, it was a little old white building and had homemade
benches in it. And, of course, it had a stand for the preacher to preach.
And way back in the early days I've been told--you know, I line some songs
sometimes, and I got that from the preacher. And I've heard that the reason
that the preacher lined it, they didn't have the money maybe to print a
songbook for each singer, so he would line that song, and then all the
congregation could hear the words and join in and sing.
GROSS: Yeah. I think I'm not familiar with that expression, lining a song.
What does that mean?
Mr. STANLEY: Well, you give out the words and then sing 'em. You give out
the words, you know, and the people can hear what you're giving out, and then
they sing that song or that line. Then they do the same thing again.
GROSS: Oh, I see. OK.
Mr. STANLEY: Just like--you want me to give you a little sample?
GROSS: Yeah. Would you?
Mr. STANLEY: (Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound...
(Speaking) That's the lining.
(Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound...
(Singing quickly) ...that saved a wretch like me.
(Singing slowly) ...that saved a wretch like me.
(Singing quickly) I once was lost, but now I'm found...
(Singing slowly) I once was lost, but now I'm found...
(Singing quickly) ...was blind, but now I see.
(Singing slowly) ...was blind, but now I see.
(Speaking) See, he gave that line out, and then they sung it.
GROSS: My guest is Ralph Stanley. He has a new CD called "Ralph Stanley."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley. He's crossed over to new
audiences as a result of his performance on the soundtrack of the film "O
Brother, Where Art Thou?" He has new CD called "Ralph Stanley."
So even though the church didn't allow instruments, all the singing in church
was a cappella, when you got an instrument, you got a banjo, did your parents
frown on that, or was that perfectly acceptable?
Mr. STANLEY: No. They really wanted my brother and me to--he got a guitar
and I got a banjo. And the only thing that was bad about that, we couldn't do
too well at first, and sometimes my father would run us out of the house and
we'd have to go out in a pasture field or somewhere--we lived on a little
GROSS: Oh. Because you didn't sound good you had to practice far away?
Mr. STANLEY: Well, I guess he was a little nervous. He didn't think it
sounded too good, I don't guess.
GROSS: How did you get your first banjo?
Mr. STANLEY: My first banjo, my mother's sister, my aunt, lived about a mile
from where we did, and she raised some hogs. And they called the mother a
sow, a hog, and she had some pigs. Well, the pigs was real pretty and I was
going to high school and I was taking agriculture in school. And I sort of
got a notion that I'd like to do that, raise some hogs. And so my aunt had
this old banjo, and my mother said, `Which do you want, the pig or a banjo?
And each one of 'em's $5 each.'
I said, `I'll just take the banjo.'
GROSS: It was a good choice, but why did you decide on it?
Mr. STANLEY: I guess I just liked the banjo the best.
GROSS: How'd you learn to play it?
Mr. STANLEY: My mother played a little bit of the old-time clawhammer, and
she tuned the banjo up and picked one tune for me, and it just become natural
to me. When she picked it I just started and picked it, too. And then from
then on I was on my own and learned.
GROSS: Who started playing first, you or your brother Carter?
Mr. STANLEY: Well, I guess we started about the same time.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. And he's a couple of years older than you or younger than
Mr. STANLEY: He was 18 months older than me.
GROSS: Older than you. Mm-hmm. What were your first performances like?
Where were they?
Mr. STANLEY: You know, they have these senior plays at the high school where
we went, and they would have one scene and they would have to pull the
curtains and change the scenes around. Well, a lot of times we would go out
in front of the curtains and pick and sing for the people until they got ready
to--got the stage set ready for the next part.
GROSS: Did it make you popular to sing in school like that?
Mr. STANLEY: Made us popular in school, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. When you started performing with your brother, had you heard
Bill Monroe? I mean when you started performing professionally, had you
already heard Bill Monroe?
Mr. STANLEY: Yeah. Yeah. I'd heard Bill Monroe before we started
GROSS: Were there things that you liked and tried to emulate about his sound?
Mr. STANLEY: Well, I never did. I never did try to do Bill's sound, but I
liked his style. I liked his feel. But now Carter, he liked to, you know,
sort of do some of his songs. But I wanted my sound. And were it hit or
miss, I always stuck to my sound.
GROSS: One of the early breakthroughs for the Stanley Brothers in terms of
reaching an audience was when you played on a new radio station in Bristol,
Tennessee, on a show called "Farm and Fun Time." What was the show like?
Mr. STANLEY: That is right. We started a hour show, or 55 minutes, from
12:05 each day till 1:00. And we played it six days a week. And we would
drive out and do personal appearances in theaters and schoolhouses and things
and then--every night, and then drive back and do our radio show the next day.
GROSS: And was it amazing to you to suddenly start getting letters from
listeners and, you know, be broadcast. And then...
Mr. STANLEY: Oh, yeah. I...
GROSS: ...you started recording on a regional label.
Mr. STANLEY: Yeah. We recorded on a little record company, Richer Tone
Records(ph), to start with. Did probably about six songs. And, you know,
then, in 1947, we signed with Columbia Records. And then in 1948, well, we
did our first session with Columbia Records.
GROSS: And what did you record on that first session?
Mr. STANLEY: Ma'am?
GROSS: What did you record on that first session?
Mr. STANLEY: The first session, I believe, was "Pretty Polly" and "I'm a Man
of Constant Sorrow" and maybe "Lonesome River." We would record four at a
GROSS: Well, let me play something from one of your early sessions on
Columbia, and this is "White Dove," and it's another one of your songs that is
very popular. This is recorded in 1949. You and your brother have
songwriting credits for this. Is this an original or a traditional song that
Mr. STANLEY: No. Carter and me wrote that song.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Anything you want to say about it before we hear it?
Mr. STANLEY: Well, it's been one of our most-requested songs all through the
years. Still is. Everywhere that I play we get requests for it. And I think
it tells a good story and I just think it's a fine song.
(Soundbite of "White Dove")
Mr. STANLEY: (Singing) We were all so happy there together in our peaceful
little mountain home. But the Savior needs angels in heaven. Now they sing
around that great white throne.
Mr. STANLEY and Group of People: White doves will mourn in sorrow. The
willows will hang their head. I'll live my life in sorrow since Mother and
Daddy are dead.
GROSS: Ralph Stanley will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
Mr. STANLEY: ...I often wonder, will we all be together someday? And each
night as I wander to a graveyard, darkness finds me where I kneel...
GROSS: Coming up, Ralph Stanley on the death of his brother Carter and his
decision to continue performing without him. And book critic Maureen Corrigan
reviews "Why I Am a Catholic" by Garry Wills.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. STANLEY: (Singing) 'Twas in the year of '92 in the merry month of June.
I left my mother and my home so dear to go with the girl from the Greenbrier
shore. My mother here, she says to me, said, `Son, don't you go. Don't leave
your mother with a broken home and go with the girl from the greenbrier
shore.' But I was young and reckless, too. I craved a reckless life. I left
my mother and my home...
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with bluegrass pioneer Ralph
Stanley. At the age of 75, he's more popular than ever as a result of his
performance on the Grammy Award-winning soundtrack recording "O Brother, Where
Art Thou?" He has a new CD called "Ralph Stanley." He started recording in
the 1940s with his older brother Carter as the Stanley Brothers. Here's an
example of the harmonies they were famous for. This is the "Lonesome River,"
recorded in 1950.
(Soundbite of "Lonesome River")
STANLEY BROTHERS: (Singing) The water rolls high on the river at midnight. I
sit on the shore to grieve and to cry. The woman I love, she left me this
morning with no one to love or kiss me good night.
GROSS: On that recording that we just heard, your brother's singing lead;
you're singing harmony. And also singing harmony is Darrell "Pee Wee"
Lambert. Talk about the harmonies that you sang together, how you arranged
it, who was singing which part.
Mr. STANLEY: Yeah. Pee Wee Lambert, he started out when we first started our
group in 1946, and Carter did the lead singing and I done the tenor singing,
and we developed a new sound there before anybody else called the high
baritone, and Pee Wee Lambert did that. And that's just become, you know,
real popular through the years. About everybody uses that now, but we were
the first to do that particular sound with the three parts together. High
baritone--you know, everybody had been used to doing a low baritone. We did a
high baritone, tenor and lead.
GROSS: How did you work that out? How did you come up with the idea?
Mr. STANLEY: We were just practicing, you know, and it just--but things like
that comes to you. And we'd never heard it before; we just was feeling
around, rehearsing the song, and just happened to find it.
GROSS: So by high baritone, does that mean he's singing the part that a
baritone would be singing, except he's singing it an octave higher?
Mr. STANLEY: Right, mm-hmm. Yep.
GROSS: Now you mentioned "Man of Constant Sorrow," that that was a popular
song right from the start for the Stanley Brothers. And, of course, it's one
of the songs that's used in the soundtrack of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
How did you first learn the song?
Mr. STANLEY: The first time that I heard the "Man of Constant Sorrow," my
father, he knew one verse of it. I don't know where he got it, but he sung
it. And Carter and me got together and put some words to it, enough to start
singing it, make a song out of it.
GROSS: Oh. How much of the words did your father know?
Mr. STANLEY: I believe about one verse.
GROSS: Oh, I see.
Mr. STANLEY: I don't know where he heard it. But that's another song that's
probably a couple hundred years old.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Now I have a recording of "Man of Constant Sorrow"
Mr. STANLEY: We recorded "Man of Constant Sorrow" for Mercury Records with
the repeat chorus, just like the same arrangement that they do it on "O
Brother, Where Art Thou?" And, you know, we have an arrangement on that now.
And at first--well, I just sung it solo all the way through. And then later
after that, why, I'd sang it some with the repeat trio and then some just
GROSS: Now your brother usually sang lead in your recordings together.
Mr. STANLEY: He always sung lead.
GROSS: How did you end up using this as a showcase for you singing solo?
Mr. STANLEY: Well, I did a lot of solos like that, like "Pretty Polly" and
"Little Maggie." And I would sing solos, and he would sing solos, too. But
when we sang a duet or a trio, why, he would do the lead and I would do the
GROSS: Right. Well, why don't we hear this 1950 version of "Man of Constant
Sorrow" and--here it is.
(Soundbite of "Man of Constant Sorrow")
Mr. STANLEY: (Singing) I am a man of constant sorrow. I've seen trouble all
my days. I bid farewell to old Kentucky, the place where I was born and
raised. For six long years, I've been in trouble. No pleasure here on Earth
I've found. But in this world I'm bound to ramble, I have no friends to help
GROSS: The Stanley Brothers. That's Ralph Stanley singing lead, recorded in
1950, "I'm a Man of Constant Sorrow."
Ralph Stanley, how do you think your voice has changed since you were
recording with your brother back in the early days?
Mr. STANLEY: I really think my voice has gotten better in the last two or
three years. I don't know why. I've been doing a lot more lead singing. And
everybody tells me that my voice was better than ever, and I agree with them.
Maybe I've learned to do more with it. I don't know why.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Well, there's a real depth to your voice.
Mr. STANLEY: Well, thank you.
GROSS: Do you think you're any less shy about performing than you used to be?
Mr. STANLEY: I reckon I am. I'll tell you, when we first started, I was
scared to death. Oh, I dreaded going on the stage worse than anything. But
now I don't--it don't ...(unintelligible).
GROSS: What were you afraid of? Not that stage fright needs an explanation,
but what kind of stage fright did you have? What was your experience of it?
Mr. STANLEY: Just people hearing my voice, a crowd of people. Maybe not
singing to soothe them or something, fail, maybe I'd make a mistake or my
voice would crack or something.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Did your brother Carter have the same insecurity, or was he
Mr. STANLEY: No, he was more confident. He was very forward.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Now at about the time that the recording of "Man of Constant
Sorrow" that we just heard was released, your brother Carter had--you had
broken up professionally for a while and your brother Carter was playing with
Bill Monroe's band. Why did you stop performing together for a brief period?
Mr. STANLEY: Well, I just got tired and I wanted to rest a while. And Carter
had always wanted to sing with Bill. So I just wanted to quit and rest a
while, so he went with Bill.
GROSS: And how'd you get back together again?
Mr. STANLEY: Well, he told me when he went, he said, `Now when you get ready
to go back to the music, you call me.' Well, about four months, I called him
and we started back together.
GROSS: What did you do during those four months?
Mr. STANLEY: I farmed a little bit and bought cattle and took them to market
and, you know, just back to the pig business, something like that.
GROSS: Was that what you wanted, or did you realize that's not what you
wanted; you wanted music?
Mr. STANLEY: I wanted music; I just wanted to try that a little bit to see
what would happen. But I soon found out that that wasn't for me.
GROSS: My guest is Ralph Stanley. He has a new CD called "Ralph Stanley."
We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley. He's crossed over to new
audiences as a result of his performance on the soundtrack of the film "O
Brother, Where Art Thou?" He has a new CD called "Ralph Stanley."
Now you said before that your brother Carter was more comfortable on stage,
that you had more of a problem with stage fright; you were shier. He is the
one who did, I think, most of the talking on stage as well as the lead
Mr. STANLEY: He did all the emcee work.
GROSS: And did you ever wish that you could share that with him, or were you
relieved that you didn't have to worry about that?
Mr. STANLEY: No, I never did want to do that. But I'd say a year or maybe a
couple year before he passed away in '66, why, we would be on the stage
together, maybe singing a song, and when the song ended, he'd just walk off.
And I had to come up there and say something or walk off, too. So I would go
up and start talking. And I believe he knew that I would be needing to do
that someday. I believe that that's the reason he done that.
GROSS: You think he knew that he was sick and wasn't long for the world?
Mr. STANLEY: Yeah, 'cause, you know, he was sick, and I think he knew that.
GROSS: You know, as we said earlier, you have have that real lonesome sound.
Do you think of your brother as having had that, too? And did you have the
same taste in songs?
Mr. STANLEY: Yeah, we liked the same songs. But Carter's voice didn't have
the lonesome feel that mine did. And you know, after he passed away, why, I
never did replace Carter, but I got a lot of good lead singers that could sing
his part. And I don't think--I hate to brag on myself, but I don't think he
could ever replace me, what everybody says.
GROSS: Right, right. He died in 1966. Was it liver cancer?
Mr. STANLEY: Yes, uh-huh.
GROSS: Did you know that he was sick? Did he know that he was sick?
Mr. STANLEY: Yeah, he knew he was sick. We got a doctor up in Bristol,
Tennessee, that we went to all the time, and he liked us. He played the banjo
a little bit. And when we moved down in Florida, the doctor came down there
one Christmas on vacation, and he had his doctor instruments with him. And he
took Carter in his house and examined him, and he told Carter, he said, `If
you don't quit what you're doing,' he said, `you won't last another year.'
And that was the 26th of December, and he passed away the next year on the 1st
GROSS: Right, so the doctor almost hit it on the head.
Mr. STANLEY: He certainly did.
GROSS: When your brother died, it must have really sent you into a crisis
both, you know, personally and professionally.
Mr. STANLEY: Well, it...
GROSS: Go ahead.
Mr. STANLEY: It did. I didn't know hardly what to do. You know, I wanted to
carry on, but I didn't know whether I could or not. But I got cards and
letters by the hundreds, phone calls telling me, said, `Please don't quit.
We've always supported the Stanley Brothers, and now we'll be more supportive
to you because we feel like you need it.' So you know, that picked me up.
GROSS: So when you decided that you were ready to start performing again, to
start performing really for the first time without your brother, what were
some of the changes that you had to make? You know, like you said, you were
singing lead more often. But you had to find another singer.
Mr. STANLEY: Well, I had to find a lead singer, which, you know, a lot of
people knew me and knew that I needed a lead singer. So I had several to pick
from. I didn't have any trouble finding a lead singer.
GROSS: Why didn't you feel like you could be the lead singer?
Mr. STANLEY: Well, I just always liked to sing tenor. Up until the last, I'd
say, three years, I've been doing a lot of lead singing. Of course, my son,
Ralph Stanley II, he's my lead singer. But still, you know, I've been singing
a lot of lead, too.
GROSS: You've had good years and you've had lean years professionally. What
were the most difficult years?
Mr. STANLEY: The most difficult years was about the time Elvis Presley came
out, that rock 'n' roll boom. And that just about crippled everybody. I
guess that's the reason that Columbia Records let us go. And there was a lot
of entertainers that the record companies got rid of at that time. And it
just crippled everything except rock 'n' roll.
GROSS: Did you like Elvis Presley?
Mr. STANLEY: Well, I d--you mean to hear him?
Mr. STANLEY: I don't like that sound, still. I never did like Elvis'
singing. But there was millions that did.
GROSS: A lot of people try to stay current and keep changing their repertoire
and the kind of instrumentation that they sing with in an attempt to stay
current and reach new audiences and so on. And that's not what you've done;
you've kind of stuck to what it is that you do. Were there ever periods where
people were convincing you that you had to get more current, you had to sing
different songs or have different kinds of musicians with you?
Mr. STANLEY: No, I've never thought of anything like that. All that the
people tells me that, you know, they're glad that I'm a-keepin' the same
old-time sound I started with. And I believe that's why, you know, I've been
in it 55 years, and I believe that's the reason I'm here today.
GROSS: Where do you live now? How close to where you grew up in southwest
Virginia do you live?
Mr. STANLEY: I live about six miles from where I was born and raised.
GROSS: Do you have land?
Mr. STANLEY: Yeah, I've got some land. I've still got the old home place
where I have a festival each year. And then I bought six acres about six
miles from where I was raised, and built a house and live there.
GROSS: Do you have any farm animals?
Mr. STANLEY: I've got a couple of horses and I've got a few cattle. I
couldn't hardly get that completely out of my system, so I had to--I lose
money every year on them, but it's just a hobby I like.
GROSS: Well, that's nice. It's interesting that you have achieved more
popularity now in your, I think, mid-70s than you've had in years. And people
usually assume it's going to be the other way around. Are you surprised by
Mr. STANLEY: Yeah, I'm surprised. You know, back about seven or eight years
ago, I got a lot of the country entertainers to sing with me and recorded a CD
and it done real well. And then I went back and done the same thing again,
only got more country entertainers. And then this "O Brother" thing came
along, and I think that's done more for this old-time music than anything that
GROSS: When you were first invited to sing on the soundtrack of it, did you
expect that it was going to have the impact that it did?
Mr. STANLEY: I don't think anybody expected that. I didn't. I don't think
GROSS: Are you singing for a lot of audiences now that are first getting
introduced to you?
Mr. STANLEY: Yeah, very much. There's a lot more younger folks. And I was
inducted in the Grand Ole Opry in 2000; that helped me. And I just--seem like
everything's come my way lately...
GROSS: Yeah, that's...
Mr. STANLEY: ...in my old age. Should maybe be retired, but I feel good and
just feel like I need to go on.
GROSS: So you're touring a lot?
Mr. STANLEY: Yeah, I've been playing something like 160 days a year. But I'm
going to cut down some.
GROSS: That's a lot by anybody's standards, I think.
Mr. STANLEY: That is.
GROSS: Do you have a family at home?
Mr. STANLEY: Yeah, I have a wife, and one of my grandsons, he's been with us
ever since he was a baby.
GROSS: Well, it's been a pleasure to talk with you, and I'm so happy for the
success that you have now, happy for us listeners and happy for you. So thank
you so much for talking with us. Why don't we end with another track from
your new CD, which is called "Ralph Stanley." And, Ralph Stanley, thank you
so much for talking with us.
Mr. STANLEY: Thank you very much. I really appreciate it, and I've enjoyed
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. STANLEY: (Singing) False hearts have been my downfall. Pretty women have
been my crave. I'm sure my false-hearted lover will drive me to my lonesome
grave. They'll bite the hand that feeds them, spend the money that you save.
From your heartstrings and silk garters, they'll build a doghouse on your
grave. When my earthly stay is over, sink my dead body in the sea. Just tell
my false-hearted lover that the whales will watch over me.
(Soundbite of instrumental portion of song)
GROSS: Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Why I Am a
Catholic" by Garry Wills. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Garry Wills' latest book, "Why I Am a Catholic"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Garry Wills is one of America's most prominent historians and critics. He's
the author of many books, including the Pulitzer Prize winner "Lincoln at
Gettysburg." Wills is also one of America's most publicly prominent
Catholics, and his latest book, "Why I Am a Catholic," is intended to address,
among other things, the scandals that have recently rocked the Catholic
Church. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
A few weeks ago, I had a meeting with a lawyer to fill out some paperwork. We
got to a line on the form that asked about my religious affiliation.
`Skeptical Catholic,' I told the lawyer. She smiled politely and wrote done
`none.' I let it go. Maybe you have to be inside the club to appreciate that
skeptical or even lapsed Catholicism is its own religious subdenomination, not
a form of atheism.
Catholics with a question mark like me go to Mass erratically. We're the ones
responsible for spiking attendance figures after September 11th. Confidently
secular friends of mine regard the priestly pederasty scandals with an air of
smugness. `What do you expect of the people who gave us the Inquisition?'
said one cynic I know.
The whole horror certainly makes me sad for the victims of priestly sexual
abuse, but also for the decent priests I've met, who have a tough enough time
these days publicly sporting that Roman collar. In my most optimistic moods,
I think the scandals will hasten in the inevitable ordination of women, at
which point--Who knows?--I might even rejoin the fold.
Even though he doesn't share my spiritual condition of being perpetually on
the fence, Garry Wills understands it. A lifelong practicing Catholic, one
who even says the rosary regularly, Wills has also been a longtime critic of
the church who believes he shouldn't have to check his brains at the door when
he attends Mass.
A couple of years ago, Wills wrote a book called "Papal Sin" that discussed
the dishonest dealings of the church hierarchy in modern times. In his latest
book, "Why I Am a Catholic," he resumes his clear-eyed scrutiny of
Machiavellian church officials. About the bishops and cardinals who've
covered up the monstrous actions of priestly sexual abusers, Wills says, `They
reason this way: Since the saving truth of the Gospel will reach more souls
in need of it if they feel that priests bringing it to them are holy, it is
necessary for the good of souls and the honor of God to maintain the priestly
aura with deception; that is, the truth must be served with lies.'
"Why I Am a Catholic" is meant as a sequel to "Papal Sin" as well as a
response to those readers who questioned how Wills can remain a Catholic in
light of all the evils he's ascribed to the church. `Troubled belief is not
disbelief,' Wills says in the introduction to this book. `An unexamined faith
is not a faith; it is a superstition.'
"Why I Am a Catholic" is really two books, at least. To answer the central
question about the endurance of his faith, Wills writes an entertaining and
succinct spiritual autobiography in which he talks about his partly Irish
Catholic boyhood in the 1940s and his years as a Jesuit seminarian, the only
time in his life, he says, that he seriously questioned the existence of God.
He also recalls his friendship with fellow Catholics like William Buckley and
the Berrigan brothers, and his deep love of G.K. Chesterton, the early
modern Catholic writer who's been a perpetual inspiration.
The second narrative here is more scholarly, dealing as it does with the
2,000-year saga of the Catholic Church and the, at best, speckled careers of
all the popes who've ever presided over it. John Paul II, the current
pontiff, earns particularly scathing criticism for his close connections to
Opus Dei, a secretive, ultraconservative and quasi-religious sect, as well
as for his dogged insistence on alienating millions of Catholics worldwide
over the issues of birth control, abortion, gay rights and the ordination of
women. This, the most extensive section of Wills' book, is addressed to
readers who already care about church history and theological and political
Even when Wills waxes personal again, as he does in the final chapter, where
he discusses his bedrock belief in the Apostles' Creed, he's not preaching to
the uninitiated. Instead, he sounds, well, like a former Jesuit, someone
whose faith is intertwined with rigorous mental dispositions.
Wills won't win any converts to Catholicism with his theologizing. But on the
other hand, his learned, contentious approach to religion is a refreshing
change from New Agey pap as well as from the know-nothing, knee-jerk
fundamentalism that's informing the current national debate about the Pledge
of Allegiance. `If God and country are worth fighting for,' Garry Wills might
say, `they're also worth fighting with.'
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Why I Am a Catholic" by Garry Wills.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.