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Friday, September 23, 2016

Ralph Stanley

When Ralph Stanley died this past summer, I had sort of heard the name but couldn't tell you much about him. I've rectified that somewhat by listening to some of his best work, and I must say it's a kick.

Stanley was mostly called a bluegrass performer, but he resisted that label, calling it instead "mountain music." The less politically-correct term might be "hillbilly" music, as it's the stuff that most people have heard at the beginning and end of The Beverly Hillbillies. This coincided with the use of Flatt and Scruggs "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" on the Bonnie and Clyde soundtrack.

Mainly the music is based on the sounds of Appalachia. Some of these songs were far older than Stanley himself, such as "Man of Constant Sorrow," which was used in the soundtrack of O Brother Where Art Thou, as was the old, old dirge "O Death," which won Stanley a Grammy Award (I must admit I prefer the Camper Van Beethoven version).

This music is real grandma and grandpa stuff, but also enormously entertaining and toe-tapping. I especially like a song called Katie Daley, and I wonder if this is where Pepsi got a name of a certain drink:

"Oh Come on down the mountain Katy Daley
Come on down the mountain Katy do
Can't you hear us calling Katy Daley
We want to drink your good old mountain dew"

Stanley's voice is a high nasal tenor, and can really hold a note when he wants to. But there are also some good harmonies, such as on "Will You Miss Me?" Of course the common instrumentation is banjo and fiddle, and there a few instrumentals here, notably "Clinch Mountain Backstep."

This music may be niche--I can't imagine there's too many people listening to it in urban areas--but it's fun and taps into my ancestral lineage that goes back to the hills of Kentucky. I certainly couldn't listen to it every day, but I'm glad I had a chance to check it out.

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