Constant sorrow: coping with death at Ralph Stanley’s bluegrass festival

 
The Stanley family cemetery

The Stanley family cemetery

 

It’s a year since Dr Ralph Stanley, one of the founding fathers of bluegrass, passed away. Not that he used that term himself. He’d routinely announce his songs as “old-time mountain style of what-they-call-bluegrass music”. To him, bluegrass belonged exclusively to Bill Monroe, and the songs he played were simply the traditional songs of his home, up among the Clinch Mountains in southwest Virginia.

And that’s where I headed this week, to the festival he and his family have held on his homestead for the past 47 years. The land up here originally belonged to Stanley’s grandpa, Noah Smith, and his Uncle Emery had killed his wife here, then shot himself, before Stanley’s parents took over the farm. Stanley’s father had then left his mother for another woman, leaving her to raise two kids with little more than a vegetable patch to feed themselves. There’s a reason Stanley’s autobiography, is called A Man of Constant Sorrow. “Life was real hard here,” he wrote. “It was all you could do to get through it.”

It was a two and a half hour drive along a road so madly winding that it’s known as The Snake and attracts bikers and sports car owners from all over the country. No exaggeration: some of the turns my car had to negotiate were actually more than 180 degrees. You have to traverse a half-dozen hollers before you get to the Hills of Home, as it’s called, so deep into the mountains that you wonder if you might stumble into a lost civilisation, or perhaps some megasaurs from The Land That Time Forgot.

This wasn’t the first year that Dr Ralph hadn’t played his own festival. Last year he was too sick to attend; he died a couple of weeks after the campervans had moved on. On the second day of the festival (the first was a lowkey affair, since it rained too hard for most people to leave their RVs) I met Bill and “Taters”, two friends who have been attending the festival for almost half a century. They took me aboard their golf buggy and drove me up to the Stanley family cemetery, which looks out over the campground and the mountain range beyond.

 
"Taters", me and Bill - and their handy golf buggy

"Taters", me and Bill - and their handy golf buggy

 

It’s a large plot, full of Stanley ancestors and cousins. An expensive range of black marble makes up the gravesites of Carter, Ralph and their mother Lucy Jane, the Stars and Stripes flying overhead. There is a headstone for Ralph’s widow Jimmi (still living), and marble benches for visitors. Ralph himself used to come and sit here often to commune with his brother Carter, whose sweet voice and charismatic frontmanship had won them acclaim as The Stanley Brothers, but who didn’t live to enjoy the worldwide fame his brother achieved, instead drinking himself to an early death.

There’s plenty of morbidity in bluegrass songs: murder ballads, ruined life chances, parents who have died and fields that have turned brown. This festival is the first place I’ve been confronted with the reality of where that comes from. The ties to family are so strong up in the mountains, and the music that emanates from here; one of the provisions of Ralph Stanley’s will was that his musician son Ralph II would take over his old band name, The Clinch Mountain Boys.

They played twice a day at the festival, and no other band’s sets were as well attended. People spoke with proud affection of “Two”, as they call Dr Ralph’s son, and when they lined up at the merch table, he addressed them by name, treating them as part of the extended family.

 
Ralph II, his mother Jimmi, and aunts. 

Ralph II, his mother Jimmi, and aunts. 

 

In a trailer not far from the stage sat Jimmi, Dr Ralph’s widow. She told me she hadn’t managed to make it out to watch any shows yet, because it was still too painful. She’d been in a “deep depression”, she said, but a prophetic lady had told her recently that she’d seen a bright halo around her head. “So I know he’s with me.” And as long as Two keeps playing, the legacy – and the festival – lives on.