Ralph Stanley's current tour, which stops at the Bijou Theatre on Friday night as part of WDVX's semi-regular World Class Bluegrass series, was announced last summer as an official farewell run--the bluegrass legend would be officially retiring from touring at the end of 2014. Almost a year into that 18-month run, it seems that Stanley's reconsidered.
Still, he's 87, and, after Earl Scruggs' death in 2012, he is pretty much the last man standing from the original generation of bluegrass greats that included Stanley and his brother, Carter; Scruggs and his long-time partner Lester Flatt; and Bill Monroe. (Monroe may have invented it, but, as I wrote in this week's issue, the Stanley Brothers perfected it in the 1950s with a string of singles recorded for Mercury Records--"Angel Band," "Little Maggie," "Pretty Polly" and a couple of dozen others.) So it's good news that this isn't your last chance to see him in Knoxville, but don't roll the dice--there won't be too many more opportunities to see this bluegrass legend.
The good doctor was kind enough to talk to us on the phone from his home in Southwestern Virginia yesterday afternoon. Here's a complete transcript of the interview:
So this is your farewell tour?
No, not really. That got started but it's really not the farewell tour.
Have you reconsidered?
Yeah, I just don't know when it will be the farewell.
That's good to hear.
Yeah, I'm leaving it up to God.
How has this tour been going?
It's been going good. Everything's working out good.
Will Ralph II and Nathan be here this weekend?
Nathan will. He's my lead singer.
You're still playing the banjo, right?
I play some.
Not quite as much as you used to?
No. I've got a regular banjo player.
How many people have been in the Clinch Mountain Boys over the years?
Oh, lord have mercy. Ten thousand, I guess. It's been a lot, because it's been several years. I wouldn't have no idea.
A lot of them have gone on to be pretty successful on their own.
Yeah, they have.
You've had a long career, with a lot of highlights. What stands out for you when you look back?
It's hard to remember. I'm not good at remembering. If someone mentions it, it'll come back to me, you know. But otherwise I don't really know much about it. I've had so many, you know.
Right. Well, I'm curious about what it was like back in the late '40s, when you and the Bluegrass Boys and Flatt and Scruggs were all first together. Did you have any idea how special this music was?
Well, I don't know. I think Bill Monroe did, and I know I did. But I didn't know too much about the others. As far as I know they were fine.
But you had a sense that this was important music and that people were responding to it.
Did you think that you'd still be playing it 60 years later?
Well, I had hopes, but I didn't know. I may be 10 years yet and it may be tomorrow. You don't never know. But i don't have no time set. As long as I'm able and the Lord will bless me, I'll be touring.
I saw you a few years ago at the Laurel Theatre here in Knoxville.
I really don't remember because I do so many.
How many shows a year do you do?
I don't know. I really don't know. We usually try to do two or three days a week.
That's a lot. That's more than 100 shows a year.
Yeah, it'd be more than that.
I guess it's just what you've always done.
It's the only thing I've ever worked at. I've never had a public job in my life.
Does this feel like work sometimes?
No, not really, not to me. Well, it's work, but it's good work. I like what i do, yeah.
Well, I'm really looking forward to the show on Friday night. And I do want to say that I think your records from the early '50s are about as good as bluegrass ever got.
Is that right?
That's what I think.
Well, good. I don't know, you know. I've done so much I wouldn't know where to start from.
Photo by Jim McGuire.