The Hills of Home, Unexecuted Plans and Gravels.
I love Ralph Stanley's music and every year he hosts a music festival up on Smith Ridge in Dickenson County, Virginia, not too many miles up the mountain from Coeburn. Since the early 80's I've enjoyed many of these festivals up on "The Ridge." Though I missed the first night because we were partying and picking down at Sam and Susan's in Bristol, I don't think I missed too much (except Nathan's Elvis impersonation which he's promised to revive at Bean Blossom).
From driving through the gate and seeing Joyce and Ruby there selling tickets to eating barbeque with my buddies from Connecticut to hearing George Shuffler up there picking that Blue Ridge guitar on Saturday night to jamming with Joe and Scott until 5:30 a.m. on Saturday to running for cover during the several frog-drowning storms we had on Friday to sitting up at Carter's hilltop grave interviewing a blubbering James King to hearing Sammy Adkins sing "Jesus Saviour Pilot Me" over Carter's grave on Sunday morning....well, it was another great time up on the Ridge. Thanks to the four guys from Kentucky I even had a front row seat - and they lent me their blue and white Kentucky Wildcats golf cart to take King up to the graveyard for the interview....good neighbors.
The weather was pretty darned good, really, and you just learn to deal with whatever up at Ralph's. This time I think there was a little more jamming than we've had in recent years. There were tearful moments, too, for many of us. James King is sounding better than he has in a long time. Ralph was grinning all over himself all weekend; he's so proud of Ralph III who was born on December 14; "he looks just like me!" He can't get enough of that baby. It's always fun to get up on the mountain and enjoy the "family reunion" aspect of Ralph's festival. He always features a Clinch Mountain Boy reunion on Saturday night for the big finale. This year didn't disappoint with Ricky Lee, Melvin Goins, George and John Shuffler, Junior Blankenship, Kenneth Davis, Sammy Adkins, Lester Woodie, Larry Sparks (hope I haven't forgotten any). Some great music and happy memories. Ralph had his extended family onstage every night at some point and the crowd seem to really enjoy seeing all the grandkids out there. I confess I missed a lot of the shows this time around spending more time visiting friends old and new up in the campground. But festivals are great in that they offer different things to different people.
We received encouraging news about Ernie Thacker and he's showing slow but steady improvement. But folks he has a long, long way to go to recovery and two little kids to feed with no insurance. His hospital bills after 5 or 6 weeks in intensive care are insurmountable, and he won't be getting out of intensive care any time soon, either. It's not my place to divulge specifics about his condition but let's just say that nobody can understand how he made it through that horrible wreck alive. He shoulda been dead by all accounts so that tells me that he's still got work to do here on earth and I expect he's going to pull through this. But he's still in need of all the prayers and financial help we can offer up so let's help our buddy out, okay?
One of my traditions at Ralph's festival has been to go up to visit Brother Carter in the middle of the night and sit there and think about his life and his music. It's incredibly peaceful up there in that little family graveyard and though other graveyards give me the creeps at night this one doesn't. It just feels right to be there when all is quiet and maybe the sun is just starting to think about rising and the birds are up and about shouting about how glad they are to see another morning coming on. So in the wee hours Sammy Adkins and his girl Mary and Junior Blankenship and I got Ben from Kentucky to ride us on up to the graveyard to visit Brother Carter and carry on the tradition -- and the gates were locked. How could they do this to our tradition? We went up to sing over Brother Carter and the only way we could have gotten in is to climb the 5 foot high Paige fence. Now I would have done it in a heartbeat but I thought about my mates, some of whom weren't really uh, sober enough, to undertake such a Herculean task. There'd been a Mason jar passing around the campfire....'nuff said. Anyway we were all wearing running shoes and if you've never tried to stick your sneakers into a Paige fence and try to climb it....well, it ain't easy. Now if I'd had my "roach killer" western boots on (you know those really pointy ones that you could kill a cockroach in a corner with) it would have been no challenge. I went all around the graveyard trying to find some other way in. Well, if we wanted to crawl on our bellies like snakes I believe we could have gotten UNDER the fence in a place or two. But they have some unbelievably dewy grass up there at 4 o'clock of a morning and we weren't that tempted. So our plan to go remember Carter's life in quiet conversation and sing the "White Dove" over him went unexecuted.
That's what I hate about change. It didn't used to be that way. Brother Carter has lain up there for nearly 40 years and nobody's bothered him. So why do we need to padlock the roads and gates to the cemetery now?
And now I'm onto gravels. Now I know you're thinking it's gravel, not gravels, but when you're in Dickenson County you have to speak like the Dickensonians and it is most definitely gravels. So there. And you gotta admit that it makes sense. I mean we say rocks, don't we? Anyway last year when I arrived on the Ridge I had the feeling I'd gotten myself to the wrong place. While everything looked fresh and new the hill on my right had been taken away and made much the same level as the rest of the grounds. There was these big huge "gravels" everywhere the eye could see and it's bloody hard to navigate - at least on foot. Ouch! Ouch! NOT the place for flip-flops I assure you. Now the gravels were arguably an improvement, at least from the perspective of people in motor homes. But you try sleeping in a tent on that. Right. So the tent grounds have been reduced to a very small place below the graveyard - and that's where they put the day parking as well. My friends in tents were camping on a 45 degree slope. Me? I was lucky. I sleep in my truck and I found a relatively flat spot. But I still hate all them gravels. It just doesn't seem right.
So on Sunday morning about 10 a.m. when the grounds were nearly entirely empty I went up to visit Brother Carter and he was unlocked again. The Stanley Brothers music that had been playing there standing guard over Brother Carter during normal opening hours had gone back off to Morehead with Jim and Ruby so the only sounds were those of the birds calling and the American flag snapping in the wind. It's times like this when I can settle down to write about festivals, so I began writing and writing. Then a soft southern voice peeped over my shoulder and I gave a real start -- maybe Brother Carter was speaking to me. But no, it was Sammy Adkins and Mary come up to say goodbye to Carter. After just a small bit of arm-twisting I persuaded Sammy to sing over Brother Carter and he sang, "Jesus Saviour Pilot Me," with the birds singing their fine tenor above him. It was a Stanley Magical Moment to be sure.
I came down off the mountain, down into McClure and Fremont and Clinchco and up into Tarpon to visit my pals Opal and Junior. Shelia was there, too, and we had a fine time eating and picking and going to the Flannagan Dam and you know me - taking pictures. I'll share some as soon as I can figure out why this blog won't let me insert photos anymore....
We had a really fun jam up by the food concessions on Friday night - Sam and Joe and Nicky and Pete and me and a couple of folks I don't know. We were joined by the wonderful Danny Davis from Fairborn Ohio and we had a great time singing trios and going through a good portion of the Stanley repertoire. Joe, Nick and Pete made the 800-mile drive from the far ends of Connecticut just to spend heavenly Stanley nights on the mountain; I heard some other folks came from Norway, Germany, England and a couple other foreign countries. We were united in our love of Stanley music and a place that's back in time.
More great memories were made at Ralph's this year - and I'm already looking forward to returning to the Ridge just as soon as I can.