Eureka Moments and A Stanley Epiphany
Over on bgrass-l (a bluegrass music bulletin board - I think that's what it's called) a few folks have been talking about their eureka! moments - how they came to bluegrass. It's quite an interesting topic. Many came to BG (bluegrass) on the worn and rutted folk music roads made dusty by the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul & Mary, Pete Seeger and others. Some heard Flatt & Scruggs on television or Doc Watson on record...and a whole bunch were brought home to bluegrass by that landmark album "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," which featured Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Jimmy Martin and a slew of others (and, of course, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band).
My epiphany came about gradually as the awareness of "what is bluegrass" eventually sunk in after teething on Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Gordon Lightfoot and PP&M (with a little California Dreamin' - Mamas & the Papas thrown in), being weaned on the Beverly Hillbillies (although it was granny's no-nonsense approach to skillet-wielding and fiesty rants, Elly Mae's cooking, Jethro's rope belt and Jane Hathaway's romantic overtures and Jed's impressive dancing skills that won me over, not the F&S segments) and finally, as a teenager who loved buying LPs, I somehow decided to purchase "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" album and it - and the Tennessee Stud - changed my life. The epiphany part - if I had a true awakening - came a little later, in 1982, when my whimsical nature led me to drive an hour from my home town - alone - to go camping at this thing called a bluegrass festival. I knew I liked the music (though at that time I didn't know who Ralph Stanley or Bill Monroe were!) So I was fortunate enough to wind up at the Berkshire Mountain Bluegrass Festival in Cooperstown, NY which, at least from the perspective of a fledgling fan, was a top-notch festival back in the day. Little did I know that I landed at a festival that featured nearly ALL of the top bluegrass bands. It was a riveting and yes, life-changing, experience. I sat on the front row all weekend, leaving only when essential, and listened to each and every band. Most of the young people around me (and I was a young people then myself - a mere 26) were fanatical about the Seldom Scene. They were truly smooth and seemingly flawless, I agree; nothing at all wrong with their performances and I listened intently. But I came to realize that weekend in Cooperstown (and it's still true,k folks) that I liked a more PRIMAL (if you will) - a rawer, more emotional (at least from my perception) kind of singing. So it was there in 1982 that I "came home" to bluegrass music in the form of one Ralph Stanley (and the Clinch Mountain Boys).
Ralph Stanley appears at Bean Blossom 2006
I've tried to describe this before and never succeeded to my satisfaction. Twenty-four years later I'm still trying to put into words why Ralph Stanley captured my being with his voice...and for all the words I write I still can't quite say. In Ralph's voice I feel and hear the wild things I love up here in the Catskills - the stream rushing over rounded rocks, the mist above the water at twilight, the birds scolding in the trees, the leaves whooshing in the breeze, the sun beating on my back as I tend the flowers....somehow it's all there in Ralph's voice. I think of his voice as an ancient and timeless cry, an ancestral thing. When I heard Ralph sing I was riveted and tingly and I knew - I really did - that my life was changed. It was like he connected me with a part of myself that I never knew was there - he touched it and gave it life. After the show I waited near his record table, waited till everyone else had bought their albums, t-shirts and caps and had moved on, then I sidled up and began asking Ralph questions. Now Ralph must have been tired but he never let on; he answered my questions about his music and where I could hear more of that sort and he even took the time to write down the address of Bluegrass Unlimited so I could subscribe to it. Ralph's not a big talker, as you know, but he gave me all the time I wanted and my initiation to the bluegrass world was a positive and remarkable one.
All these years and festivals later Ralph remains my favorite. I can't count the times I've heard him perform at festivals, concerts...and even in the recording studio. His voice - especially on gospel songs and things like Hemlocks and Primroses still gets at that ancient ancestral kind of memory that must be brewing in my veins.
I don't know if you'd call it a Eureka! moment or not, but Ralph Stanley's voice sure changed my life (in a good way). I went home and quit my job - one I'd had five years - loaded up my new little car (a Toyota Starlet, the first car I ever owned) with my guitar, a North Face tent, my Canon A-1 and a few other essentials and spent the next several months literally on the bluegrass road. When my family took vacations I ususally stayed on my grandmother's farm so I'd never seen much of America. It was fun to take the two lane roads like Route 11 and go from place to place seeing the unique town squares and mom and pop restaurants, cabin courts and so forth all up and down America as I wended my way to the next bluegrass festival. Along the way I met some of the most wonderful friends - folks who, 24 years later, remain dear to me.
Not so long ago I looked through my address book and discovered that nearly every single friend I have today has come to me through music, and more specifically, through bluegrass music and some of its off-shoots - or should I say forerunners - old time and classic country.
It has been a good run and I hope I have many more festivals ahead of me before one day I travel to that big festival in the sky. The tunes are bound to be long because there are sure a lot of 'em up there wanting to take a break on this number! I miss those who have gone on and think of them often - and I cherish those who remain here showering us with their musical blessings. It's a good life.