The Mountaintop: A Family Odyssey

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And from these hardscrabble roots something else also sprouted. Ralph and Carter played the banjo and guitar, respectively, and sang—Carter in the lead, Ralph harmonizing—at the mining camps on payday. What began at those camp sessions took Ralph Stanley farther than he ever dreamed. Stanley has played everywhere from coal mining camps to gin joints to Carnegie Hall. Stanley is eighty-five now, and he has put out some two hundred albums. Should a sculptor ever decide to carve a Mount Rushmore of bluegrass, Stanley will be a shoo-in.

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I follow them from the town of Coeburn, and after an hour of twisting and turning on narrow Clinch Mountain roads, we arrive on the mountaintop. The bus has logged more than a million miles over the last decade, although in recent years Stanley has eased back on the throttle, trimming a schedule of gigs a year to around A trio of dogs greet us with Hee Haw shrugs and put their heads back down. Stanley, fastidiously dressed in dark pants and a purple cowboy shirt with gold stitching, his signature silver hair brushed back, welcomes us and leads us into the kitchen.

Stanley was shy and reclusive growing up, but he is friendly and observant and has a twinkle in his eye.


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His mother—one of twelve Smith children, all banjo pickers—taught him to play in traditional clawhammer style, and the quiet boy came alive when he could hide behind a banjo. He would later learn to pick the more contemporary and rapid three-finger style. Earl Scruggs was the first I listened to. I try to make my banjo sound as much like the sound of the words as I can.

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With dark sideburns and hefty-Elvis looks, Nathan is now the lead singer and mainstay of the Clinch Mountain Boys, the band formed long ago to accompany the Stanley Brothers. Nathan first appeared onstage at the Grand Ole Opry in , when he was two. A lot of artists go with the flow. You almost have to be born with it.

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To this day, Ralph is disinclined to talk about himself much. Jimmi calls him Poker Face. Doc Watson was blind and lost his son, Merle, in a tractor accident.

Bill Monroe lost both parents before he was twenty, nearly died in a car wreck, and at least once had to duck a Bible hurled onstage at him by an irate woman. In their twenty years of touring together, Carter sang lead and cracked jokes. Ralph had the more unusual voice, which made for rich harmonies and a haunting mountain sound.

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Ralph Stanley: Long Road to the Mountaintop

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