Remembering Bluegrass Legend Ralph Stanley

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   By Molly ConnollyWhen I learned that bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley passed away last Thursday, it didn’t register initially. Only after a quick search did I realize that it was this man, whose voice The New Yorker called “inimitable”, who changed music for me as I knew it.   I took up the violin at the age of 5 after seeing videos of Itzhak Perlman and begging my parents for lessons. It wasn’t long before my childhood became one of string quartets, chamber music and a lifelong internal struggle as to whether I preferred the 2nd or 3rd movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I was on the path to musical snobbery and this pained my parents, who, as products of the 60s and 70s, had worked hard to expose me to an eclectic array of music that included Paul Simon, Tina Turner, The 5th Dimension and The Mamas & the Papas.    They introduced me to the “fiddle” and the music of my native rural Pennsylvania in a last ditch effort to diversify my musical palette, but unfortunately this did not have the desired effect. This instrument, which looked exactly like the one I was working to master represented a style that to me seemed sloppy and unprofessional. There seemed to be no rules when it came to bluegrass music, improvisation was encouraged and dancing was always a risk- a classical musician’s nightmare. It was like overcooking a steak or wearing white after Labor Day. In a word, it was sacrilege.    And then one day, in 2000- the year the whole world seemed to be turning upside down- my dad brought home the soundtrack to the Coen brothers’ quirky cinematic masterpiece, O Brother, Where Art Thou and I heard bluegrass and spirituals in a new context of artistry, soul and simplicity. I listened as the great (and now late) Ralph Stanley sang the Appalachian dirge, O Death and the lead singer of the Soggy Bottom Boys admitted he was a Man of Constant Sorrow. There was an honesty and element of storytelling that I had never experienced in an orchestral setting before. My little sister and I performed In the Highways on a backwoods West Virginia radio station and my fascination with the natural and raw music of bluegrass was born.   It was, in part, due to Stanley’s prolific work (he wrote and performed over 300 songs during his life) that I stopped seeing bluegrass as messy and chaotic. The repeated phrases, which once seemed rote now became worshipful. Straightforward words and chord structures were juxtaposed against intricate banjo riffs and improvised instrumentals. It was simple music with a simple message that drew me into something much, much deeper. Often his songs painted beautiful pictures of nature, love and of a world without suffering and pain.    So it’s here that I’d like to honor the legacy of Ralph Stanley and the genre he pioneered for telling real stories with a voice that often was weak and crackling- imperfect by many standards, yet perfectly able to tell the stories of the human soul- especially at the end of a life well lived:I've a home prepared where the saints abideOver in the glory landI long to be by my Savior’s sideOver in the glory land Just over in the glory landI'll join (yes join) the happy angels bandOver in the glory landJust over in the glory landThere with (yes with) the mighty host I'll standOver in the glory land Image from: http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/news/624/cpsprodpb/182DE/production/_90083099_stanley2_getty.jpg