Bluegrass music isn’t ancient. It’s not even old. However “traditional,” or even “antique,” it may sound, it’s worth reflecting that lots of people alive today were already adults when the genre came into being.
It all began in December of 1945 when an innovative young musician named Earl Scruggs was hired by Kentucky-native Bill Monroe to be the banjo player for his acoustic country music band known as the “Bluegrass Boys.” What was different about Scruggs was that he did not play in the “clawhammer” banjo style of most other mountain players, including his immediate predecessor in Monroe’s band, David Akeman (who went by the stage name “Stringbean”). Rather, Scruggs had perfected a three-finger way of playing the five-string banjo that enabled him to produce impressively fast-moving, hard driving solos with much more room for improvisation than the clawhammer style permitted. The crowds loved it. His success, and the success of bluegrass music, was instantaneous.
So, Bill Monroe (whose instrument was the mandolin) and Earl Scruggs were founding fathers of bluegrass. But they were not alone. Nor was Scruggs alone as the father of bluegrass banjo playing. For as Scruggs was developing the three-finger style, so was another young five-string picker named Don Reno. What was distinctive about Reno’s work was that it incorporated elements of jazz, which had sprung into existence a few decades before bluegrass, as well as some of the popular music of the day. Major and minor seventh chords, sixth chords, and ninth chords, which rarely, if ever, appeared in Monroe’s music or Scruggs’ picking, were deployed in Reno’s work—giving it a jazzy feel. He would also cut loose regularly with single string solos of the sort that might have been produced using a flat pick, in the mode of the four-string “plectrum banjo” players, though Reno produced them by thumb-forefinger alternation. Scruggs never did that.
But there was one more founding father of bluegrass banjo playing, and that was Ralph Stanley—Doctor Ralph Stanley, as he liked to be called after receiving an honorary doctorate from Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee in 1976 (he would later receive one from Yale). If Reno took the three-finger style of five-string banjo playing away from the more traditional or “old timey” mountain sound towards jazz and pop music, Stanley did the opposite. His music hewed closer even than Scruggs’ to the traditional sound of the folk music of the Appalachian hills. Indeed, Stanley preferred the label “old-time country music” to “bluegrass,” though there is no denying that his three-finger banjo playing was in the Scruggs (hence bluegrass) style, rather than the clawhammer style that, for example, Lucy Stanley—Ralph’s mother—had played and which Ralph himself played before hearing Scruggs. But there is also no doubt that Stanley’s sound was unique, and it has influenced countless bluegrass musicians. The same is true of Stanley’s vocal style and the overall sound of the “Clinch Mountain Boys”—the band he founded with his brother Carter and kept going for fifty years after Carter’s death. Now Ralph himself has died, on June 23. The last of the founding fathers of bluegrass banjo—and, indeed, bluegrass music—has “gone to be with the Lord.”
That’s not a throwaway line. What has been missing in the stories about and tributes to Ralph Stanley that have been pouring out since his death a week ago is just how profoundly everything about the man was shaped by his belief in God and his sense of God’s active presence in the affairs of man. The failure of people to pick up on this fact is scarcely his fault. He would tell anyone who would listen, or ask him a question about himself or his music. It’s just that most of the people writing the stories and tributes, even those who are themselves religiously affiliated, can’t quite get hold of how faith quite literally suffuses the lives of people like Ralph Stanley. But those of us who grew up in Appalachia get it. And so would people from, say, Orthodox Jewish or Muslim communities, no matter how distant in geography or theology from the Primitive Baptist Church (that’s actually the name of the tradition) in which Stanley was formed as a Christian believer.
But whence the stories and tributes? Why so much public attention—even an obituary in the New York Times—over the death of a bluegrass musician?
The explanation is simple: Stanley developed a remarkably wide and even somewhat cultish following among people, many of whom had little previous interest in bluegrass or old-time mountain music, when he was a featured artist in the Coen Brothers’ 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? He sang a haunting—one might even say chilling—unaccompanied version of the dirge “O Death,” capturing countless new fans and scoring a Grammy Award in 2002. Shortly after the Grammy was awarded, Stanley was interviewed about his music and life by Jeffrey Brown of the PBS NewsHour. To understand my point about the centrality of Stanley’s religious faith to everything about him, including his music, and to see how hard that is for many people today to grasp, please have a look at this video of the interview, and note both Stanley’s unaffected candor about religion and Brown’s nearly cringe-inducing efforts to follow him without smirking:
Now, none of this means that someone has to share Ralph Stanley’s faith, or even believe in God, to appreciate and enjoy his music. But if you want to know where the man was coming from, what he was doing, what made him tick, what inspired his work, and, above all, if you really want to understand his music, you need to be able to at least sympathetically imagine what it is like to view the world as he did, and live a life suffused by a sense of the presence of God.
When Ralph Stanley sang “O Death,” he was not merely entertaining us. He was instructing us. More to the point, he was warning us. He meant it. Death was a-coming for us all, and we had better lead our lives with that in mind. Life is short, and is lived in the shadow of death. And with death comes judgment. God is merciful but just. He is not mocked and we ignore Him or break His commandments at our peril. He makes the rules, we don’t. He has given us gifts—“everything we have,” as Stanley instructs Jeffrey Brown in the PBS NewsHour interview—and he expects those gifts to be used to do good; they are not for mere self-gratification. We are sinners, but redeemed. We can choose to walk in the Lord’s ways—or not. We’re constantly tempted and often we stray. We are never truly prepared for death, for we are never fully prepared for judgment.
Won’t you spare me over just another year?
None of this is to suggest that Ralph Stanley and his music were morbid or “preachy,” or that all or even most of it was overtly religious. It’s true that he had a huge repertoire of hymns, recorded several bluegrass gospel albums, and always included sacred numbers (often his classic “Over in the Glory Land”) in his live performances; but he also sang love songs, songs about things like livestock (“I’ve got a pig, home in a pen . . .) and poverty (“Lord have mercy on a sharecropper’s son”), and even songs about bootleg liquor (“Mountain Dew”) and slightly racy numbers (“How Mountain Girls Can Love”). One the numbers he is known best for is a song about a broken romance in which the wayward woman is holding a dram glass in her hand—“Little Maggie.” In addition, he wrote, recorded, and regularly performed some now classic bluegrass banjo instrumentals (such as “Clinch Mountain Backstep”). But everything, even the secular aspects of his work and music, was shaped by and reflected his belief in the presence of God in the world. If you don’t understand that, then you can’t understand him or his music.
Another of Stanley’s signature numbers was “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” and he was often called onto the performing stage by an announcer who invited the audience to welcome “the man of constant sorrow, Grammy award winner Dr. Ralph Stanley!” But though, like the rest of us, his life was touched by tragedy and sadness (notably the untimely death of his brother Carter from alcoholism), he was not a man who lived constantly in sorrow or abject fear. Precisely on account of his faith, and with it the awareness of living as a redeemed sinner in the shadow of death, he lived in gratitude—feeling as though he had been blessed beyond measure—and in “the sure and certain hope” that he would someday go to be with the Lord—“over in the glory land.” It’s hard to imagine his being turned away.