New Yorker 2001

Annals of Bluegrass

Constant Sorrow

The long road of Ralph Stanley

by David Gates

Looked at from the world s point of view, it was a triumphant day for Ralph Stanley. Looked at from his own, it was a long wait to sing three songs. He hadn't slept well—"I must 've turned over a hundred times"—partly because his two-year-old grandson was in the hospital back home, in Virginia, with pneumonia, and partly because no normal person could sleep in New York His description of the hotel where he and his wife, Jimmi, were staying made it sound like an S.R.O. in Hell's Kitchen. (In fact, it was the aggressively fashionable Hudson, on West Fifty-eighth Street.) And Carnegie Halls Dressing Room D, where he'd been hanging out behind a closed door since one-thirty in the afternoon for an evening performance, had just about everything a man didn't need: an upright piano, plates of fruit and cold cuts, and air-conditioning that wouldn't go off.

Stanley had come here during a hot spell in June as the culminating attraction of a sold-out concert featuring music on the best-selling soundtrack album from the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," for which he had joined such roots-musk loyalists as the late John Hartford, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, the Cox Family, and three sweet-and-sour-voiced little girls from Tennessee called the Peasall Sisters. Since May of last year, when these people were last onstage together, at Nashville s Ryman Auditorium, they had had occasion to reflect on the truisms about mortality and mutability in the songs they sing. Just a few days before the Carnegie Hall concert, Hartford had died of cancer. Several months earlier, the fiddler Willard Cox had broken his back in a car wreck; tonight he was playing in a wheelchair.

As the concert began, Stanley changed into his stage clothes, remarking—not without a certain sly satisfaction—that they made him look like "an undertaker": black suit with a blacker stripe; black shirt; busy tie in muted red; and a tiepin with a tiny clockface. His physical presence is not commanding. He's a short, owlish-looking man with wire-rimmed glasses and tightly curled, meticulously styled gray hair; when he s not playing the banjo, he often does his hell-harrowing singing with his hands in his pockets. And since he had come here only to sing and not perform with his own band, he had left his custom-made Stanleytone five-string and his trademark white Stetson at home. He stood in the wings with Jimmi, listening to the others, until it was time for him to go on and close the show. A few performers respectfully approached him, but he glad-handed no one. At last, he squared his shoulders and strode onto the stage to a standing ovation.

Backed by a few of the evenings other performers, he sang three of his strongest, most death-haunted songs. (Probably half of the two thousand or so numbers that he has recorded involve lonesome graves, cold dark shrouds, murders, dying parents—also dying children, siblings, sweethearts, and Saviours—and the prospective glories of Heaven.) His first song, "Oh Death," was an unaccompanied solo on the ancient theme of bargaining with the Reaper to "spare me over till another year." Next came "Man of Constant Sorrow." With its insistent, chugging rhythm, as much blues as blue-grass, and its weird, angular melody, it has been his signature number for more than fifty years. He closed the program with "Angel Band," a song that he first recorded in 1955 with his late brother, Carter. "My latest sun is sinking fast," it begins. "My race is nearly run." The performance was Ralph Stanley at his present-day best: his well-aged tenor voice strong and hard, its edge unblunted, as he navigated the turns and ornaments that he learned as a boy, singing in a Primitive Baptist church. He had performed these songs thousands of times over half a century, but, as usual, he changed a few nuances. In "Angel Band," when he got to "whose blood now cleanses from all sin / And gives me victory," his voice leaped up a clarion-call fifth on the word "me."

Ever since the death of Bill Monroe, the putative father of bluegrass, in 1996, Ralph Stanley has been the supreme icon of authenticity in American vernacular music. He is neither the last nor the oldest of the mountain-music patriarchs: Earl Scruggs, who is the prototypical bluegrass banjo player, and served as an early model for Stanley, has just released his first album since 1984, "Earl Scruggs and Friends." But Scruggs hasn't performed much in the past quarter century, Stanley, who is slightly younger, continues to do more than a hundred shows a year. Even when he was in his twenties, Stanley’s voice—hard, piercing, with a touch of raspiness—made him sound like a scary old man. Today, he sounds even scarier, and he has begun appealing to an audience tar beyond the usual bluegrass circuit of summer festivals, college-town coffeehouses, and school and firehouse gigs throughout the rural South.

Stanley has striven for commercial success ever since 1946, when he and Carter started out as the Stanley Brothers. But since he's ultimately selling his own rugged unworldliness, he also needs to keep the culture of getting and spending at a distance. After his brother died, in 1966, he deliberately turned backward and inward. He cultivated his own conservative musical instincts— soon, for instance, he began featuring stark a-cappella gospel quartets—and, over the years, he has kept as close as a touring musician can to the primal landscape of his childhood: Virginia's Clinch Mountain region. For years, he has listened to few recordings but his own—if he's in the mood for Nashville-type country, he chooses George Jones—and his duets with such admirers as Bob Dylan and Lucinda Williams suggest that these better-known musicians want to touch the source of an almost mystical purity. Unlike Monroe, who occasionally hired urban college types, Stanley won t take on a musician who's not from the Southern mountains. "With all due respect," he told me, "I don't think Northern city boys have got the natural ... you know. I like to have a man in my band that talks like me. I just like to keep it down simple."

Stanley often begins the ritual opening speech at his shows with "a big old howdy** and a promise to deliver "that old-time, mountain-style, what-they-call-bluegrass music." This bumpy formulation is an attempt to draw a fine distinction: the most revered performer in bluegrass isn't sure that the term fits him. The name originated with Monroe, a Kentuckian who boosterishly called his band the Blue Grass Boys. Ralph Stanley's music sounds, superficially, like Monroe's, but to a musician of Stanley s generation "bluegrass" still feels like a brand name. He generally refers to what he plays as "my kind of music," or, if you press him, "just that old-time mountain music."

In fact, mountain music was never that simple. By the time fiddlers, banjo players, and singers from the Southern Appalachians began to be recorded, in the nineteen-twenties, they had already synthesized influences as diverse as ballads and dance tunes from the British Isles; blue notes, the banjo, and rocking polyrhythms from Africa; ragtime tunes and Victorian parlor songs. Twentieth-century technology, which allowed the music to travel independently of the musicians, only encouraged such exchanges. Stanley, who was born in 1927, remembers when his parents got their first radio—a battery-powered model, as they had no electricity—and when he first heard the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts from Nashville. Well before the advent of bluegrass, mountain music had already become a media-disseminated entertainment.

The band that Monroe formed in 1945 inspired a revolution. For all of bluegrass s traditional roots, it is a recent—even modernist—form, only a few years younger than bebop. Unlike ensemble-oriented old-time mountain bands, Monroe s group allowed individual musicians to play jazz-like, semi-improvised solos, and ornate obbligatos behind the singing. To complement his own hopped-up, asymmetrical mandolin and his bluesy, androgynous tenor voice, Monroe picked a team of virtuosos—notably Scruggs, who had perfected an intricate system of three-finger picking that produced a dense, highspeed flow of notes, like a twanging tommy gun. From that day to this, almost every bluegrass band has been a variation of Monroe s: Scruggs-style banjo, fiddle, mandolin, rhythm guitar, and bass, with sometimes a lead guitar or a dobro, and a repertoire of retooled folk, gospel, and love-gone-wrong songs.

Bluegrass might be described as meta-mountain music—self-referential and driven by an anxiety that the old ways of life, and the music that went with them, are vanishing. Monroe s "Uncle Pen" is the best-known example of a favorite bluegrass trope: an uptempo fiddle showpiece about an old fiddler and the tunes he used to play. Song after song tells the same story of uprootedness and alienation; the genre s locus classicus is the Stanley Brothers' version of "Rank Strangers” "I wandered again to my home in the mountains /Where in youth's early dawn I was happy and free / I looked for my friends, but I never could find them / I found they were all rank strangers to me," "Rank Strangers" reflects the hard times that drove people away from the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee after the Second World War. These new urban workers made up an appreciable part of the bluegrass audience; for them, Stanley’s "Man of Constant Sorrow" ("I bid farewell to old Kentucky, the state where I was born and raised") was both a nostalgic reminder of home and a bitter anthem of loss. “I’ve saw it when we'd play the bars and things up in Ohio— Dayton and Columbus and Cincinnati and through there," George Shuffler, who was the Stanley Brothers' lead guitarist, told me. "That was where all the people migrated to get out of the coal mines. I’ve saw 'em raise the roof when Ralph would start into that thing."

Stanley has known that feeling of exile. In 1951, he and Carter briefly took jobs at the Ford plant in Detroit. "That was a pretty miserable ten weeks for me," he said, fifty years later. "I was a truck-pan welder, spot welder. I was working night shift, about three until twelve or something. I got homesick I thought they s something better to do than punch a clock. So I quit and went home."
Stanley still lives in a remote area of southwestern Virginia, between the towns of Coeburn and McClure, just a few miles from where he grew up. The country looks much the same as it did when he was a boy, except for some flattened hilltops that the coal companies once strip-mined, where cattle now graze. You're getting close when you hit a crossroads with a Kwik Stop, a Freewill Baptist church, and a sign that reads "Jesus Is the Answerer and Finisher of Our Faith."

Stanleys house is a large, elegant, one-story gray stone rambler on a gentle rise; a section of his thirty-five-acre property near the road is marked off with a gentleman farmer's white fences. Stanley s son and lead singer, Ralph II— his father and his bandmates call him Two—lives in a small white trailer next door with his wife, Kristi. When I pulled into the driveway one morning, I was greeted by Two's German shepherd, Harley. Stanley, dressed for company in slacks and a sports shirt, ignored Harley s tail-wagging. "I'm kinda mad at him," he said. "He goes after the horses. So I don't fool with him much." He showed off his palomino, Angel, who was about to foal, and his John Deere Gator, a six-wheel all-terrain vehicle that he'd wanted for several years, but which now sat unused in a shed. "I bet it hasn't got more than fifteen miles on it," he said. (A few months later, he sold the thing.) Stanley clearly loved this place, but he also seemed at a distance from it—perhaps the consequence of spending most of his life on a tour bus, heading from one town to the next to sing about his home in the mountains.

In the kitchen, something smelled good: Stanley, who likes to cook, had some beans on the stove. He led me into the reddest living room I've ever seen: an acre of red carpet, a plush red sofa, red curtains pulled open to reveal a manicured lawn. The floor-to-ceiling picture window and the meticulous housekeeping made the room seem like a diorama; ceramic dogs here and there, a white ceramic pillar with a cupid holding a cornucopia of roses, a display case with china angels, china birds, and a china Jesus. The only thing that looked out of place was the banjo case on the floor. Jimmi Stanley came in to say hello, chatted about the weather and her allergies, and offered us coffee. Stanley has small hands, and it was hard not to stare at his fingers: they curl away from the thumb, which made me wonder how he still managed to play banjo as strongly as he does. As we talked he drummed his fingers on a glass-topped table.

In conversation, Stanley has his set pieces: The road-not-taken story about his once having to choose between spending five dollars on either a brood sow or his first banjo; the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God story of a drunk who shot and killed one of his lead singers, Roy Lee Centers, who sounded uncannily like Carter. "Roy went to a party, and of course they all got drunk," Stanley said. "Roy's little boy was with him. He was about eight or nine years old at that time, maybe ten. And the tale the little boy told, this fella drove Roy home and he changed routes a little bit. Roy said, 'Where you going?' The fella said, I'm gonna take you up this road here and kill you/ He took him up there, got him out, and said, ‘I’m gonna silence that beautiful voice forever,' and shot him right in the mouth. Then he turned around and took the butt of the gun and beat him all to pieces."

Stanley walked me briskly through his childhood: the period when he worked in his father's sawmill; his early thoughts of being a veterinarian; his father's leaving the family when Ralph was thirteen. From that time on, he said, "we didn't see too much of him." Stanley began taking music seriously as a teen-ager, singing brother-act harmonies with Carter, who played guitar; they sometimes performed for donations outside the Clinchfield Coal Company on paydays. He did a short stretch in the Army, just after the war ended. Then he and Carter formed a band with a mandolinist, Pee Wee Lambert, and a fiddler, Leslie Keith. Before long, they'd landed the midday spot on "Farm and Fun Time" on WCYB, in Bristol, on the Virginia-Tennessee border, fifty miles from home. Even then, the shy and taciturn Ralph let his older, taller, more outgoing brother do most of the talking and lead singing. "Carter would ve just as soon called the President as he would've called me," Stanley said. "He was a good mixer, a lot more forward than I am. Easier to get acquainted with."

At first, Stanley played banjo in the archaic clawhammer style that his mother had taught him: a clip-clopping sound produced by a downstroke of the index fingernail, followed by the thumb playing accents on the fifth string. He had also mastered the smoother two-finger style, in which the index finger picks upward. But, in the forties, a few banjo players—mainly in North Carolina—were refining a more complex three-finger style, attacking the strings in repeating sequences called "rolls"; on fast tunes, an overpowering technician like Earl Scruggs could unleash as many as fifteen notes per second. "I believe the first person I heard do that was a man by the name of Hoke Jenkins," Stanley said. "He was playing it on the radio somewhere. And I thought I needed to be doing it that way. There was just more of a drive to it. Then I heard Earl Scruggs with Bill Monroe on the Grand Ole Opry. I could tell they was using three fingers. But I never could copy anybody. When I found out there was a sort of a roll, I wanted to just play it the way I felt it, and I didn't want to hear them anymore. I guess I still don't have it right. Earl Scruggs probably knows a little bit more about music. I'd say he's more polished, you know." When I asked Steve Sparkman, a Stanley disciple who now plays the more difficult banjo parts with the Clinch Mountain Boys, to characterize the difference between the two masters, he said, "Ralph took the drive and put more drive in. You might say overdrive. Just wham! Keep that forward roll jammin'."

Stanley’s other contribution to the band's sound, his raw, yearning tenor voice, was even more distinctive. He sang lead mostly on the old-time songs—"Little Maggie," "Pretty Polly," "Man of Constant Sorrow." On the others, he sang high harmony to Carter's lower, smoother-textured melody. Perhaps the most dramatic moment in all the Stanley Brothers' hundreds of recordings occurs in the chorus of "Rank Strangers." After Carter sings the verse, Ralph enters with the words "Everybody I met / Seemed to be a rank stranger" in a voice that stabs like an icepick. He raised the tension in the Stanley Brothers' music to the nearly unbearable: singing above Carter's melody, he would hang on a dissonant note in anticipation of the chord that was about to arrive. Over time, these harmonics became wilder, more edgy and attention-getting—a separate drama that didn't cozy up to the melody but defied it before an ultimate reconciliation. "Every lead singer that sings with me will say I'm hard to sing with," Stanley said. "I hardly ever sing the same verse exactly the same way."

Initially, the Stanley Brothers so admired Monroe that they annoyed him by copying his sound. Their maniacally up-tempo 1948 recording of "Molly and Tenbrooks" was an almost note-for-note version of what Monroe was playing on his radio broadcasts, and when Columbia signed the Stanleys, later that year, Monroe left the label in protest. But the feud, such as it was, was short-lived. In 1951, Carter briefly became a Blue Grass Boy. And at one point both Stanleys did a few gigs with Monroe. "The last night I played with him, Bill said that he would like to have me join him and call it Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers," Stanley said. "But I just never did like to work for anybody." In later years, Stanley and Monroe sang together at festivals, where they indulged in the bluegrass world s mode of friendly rivalry: how high could they push the key before somebody's voice cracked? "After the shows," Stanley said, "we personalized. We'd talk about music, we'd talk about farming. Bill cut his hay with a horse-drawn mowing machine. He was an old-timer."

In contrast to Monroe, who was something of a martinet (he recruited band members to work on his farm when they weren't playing), the Stanley Brothers had a complementary partnership. Carter, who was the principal songwriter, had a gift for the country-style objective correlative—"For years they've been dead / The fields have turned brown"—while Ralph played the fiery instrumentals. Carter did the talking onstage, while the more retiring Ralph did most of the booking and the business. Musically, Carter was the progressive and Ralph the traditionalist. "Carter believed in searching a little bit, and I never did," Stanley said. Everyone who knew Carter was struck by his sharp intelligence, and George Shuffler likes to remember him laughing and throwing his head back so far that you could see his gold tooth. John Cohen, a member of the New Lost City Ramblers, saw a different man. "Carter was so deep into himself," Cohen recalled. "I think it was this huge drinking thing that he had. You couldn't get to where he was."

When Carter died of liver disease, at the age of forty-one, Shuffler was in the hospital waiting room with Ralph. "When the nurse came in and told us," Shuffler recalled, "Ralph was just as limp as a string." Monroe flew to Bristol and was driven up the icy mountain roads to sing at Carter’s funeral. (Thirty years later, when Monroe died, Stanley went to Nashville to “sing over Bill," as he put it.) Carter’s death made Stanley think, briefly, about quitting music. "He had a hard time in his heart knowing what to do," Ricky Skaggs, who played mandolin for Stanley in the early seventies, told me. "But Ralph had a desire to keep the Stanley Brothers sound alive. And he didn't know any other trade. He didn't have anything else to do."

Stanley said, "I knew that I had one or the other of two ways to go: up or down. I wanted to go up."
Last spring, on a Thursday night in Berkeley, California, I caught up with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. They were In the middle of a two-week tour. Freight & Salvage, a large coffeehouse on a side street near the university, has been a regular stop of theirs since the seventies, and both the Thursday and Friday shows were sold out. The band likes the West Coast: the audiences are knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and they tend to have more money than folks in the Deep South; on a tour like this, the band members who have solo CDs and tapes to sell can make fifteen hundred dollars above their usual wages. The audience was a typical folk-music crowd: faculty, grad students, a couple of Sikhs with beards and turbans, a biker in a Merle Haggard cap, an alert-looking young woman with a T-shirt that read "Got Banjo?" Median age: forty. Percentage wearing glasses: fifty. Randy Campbell, an agent who books the band on the West Coast, calls this sort of venue "the Church of Ralph Stanley."
The Clinch Mountain Boys are a seven-member repertory company. The fiddler, James Price, is so magisterially large that he looks as if he were holding a kid-size Suzuki violin. Price doubles as the comedian—Stanley, of course, is the straight man—and he does convincing onstage impressions of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson (as well as a convincing offstage impression of Ralph Stanley). The lead guitarist, James Alan Shelton, has mastered George Shuffler's "cross-picking" technique, a wrist-twisting approximation of the three-finger banjo style; he's also the road manager. Steve Sparkman plays Stanley's old banjo pieces, such as "Hard Times" and "Clinch Mountain Back-step." The mandolinist, John Rigsby, can fill in singing either Carter-like lead or Ralph-like tenor, as the occasion demands.

Jack Cooke, who was once Bill Monroe's lead singer, has been Stanley's bass player for thirty-one years. He's a source of manic energy despite an arthritic hip and the open-heart surgery he had a couple of years ago. On the band's bus, he'll burst into a Little Richard song or deliver dire prophecies about the environment and the Bush Administration. (Like Stanley, he's a lifelong Democrat.)

Ralph Stanley II, who is twenty-two years old, has been the band's lead singer since he was sixteen. Two started riding the Stanley bus as a boy, and when he couldn't come along he'd play his favorite Stanley Brothers album and his favorite Ralph Stanley album each night on his bedside boom box. "I'd listen to every song on both them records," he told me. "They’s twenty on one, twelve on the other. And then I'd go to sleep." With his beard and aviator sunglasses, Two looks like a video-ready young Nashville star. Longtime fans used to roll their eyes about him—his voice hadn't finished changing when he first took the job—but he's become a warm, moving singer, who combines the soulfulness of his Uncle Carter with the more anguished mainstream country style of his hero Keith Whitley, who sang lead with Stanley in the seventies.

Onstage that Thursday night in Berkeley, the band locked into the usual sweetly aching harmonies and headlong rhythms: the heavy bass that brings the words "bull fiddle" to mind, the woody acoustic guitars, the bell-toned jack-hammering of the twin banjos, the keening and skittering fiddle. But Stanley sounded hoarse, and he looked as if he were having trouble keeping his eyes open. On "Man of Constant Sorrow" he strained to hit the top notes, and later apologized to the crowd: "We left Virginia last Wednesday, and we've been playing for eight nights straight. I tell you, that works on you." He joked about his age and his problems remembering new songs: “’Doc, it seems like I cant remember anything anymore.' 'How long have you been that way?' 'What way?' "Then he took out his glasses and a piece of paper, and sang "Daddy's Wildwood Flower," a ghost story in which Mama dies and Daddy, with the help of "God's mighty power," summons her back by playing her favorite song on his guitar.

On Saturday morning, the bus, a standard-issue country-star Silver Eagle with "Dr. Ralph Stanley & His Clinch Mountain Boys" painted on its sides, took to the road again: a show in Palo Alto, an all-night run to Los Angeles, a last gig in Tempe, Arizona. On the way, the band members talked cuisine ("You ever eat that swordfish? I don't like that worth a shit"), football, music, and women. James Price read a motivational book by an ex-N.F.L. player; James Shelton read Seymour Hersh's "Dark Side of Camelot." But mostly the musicians dozed in their seats or looked out the windows. Stanley seldom said a word. "This must get rough on him," I said to Shelton. "It s all he knows," Shelton said.

In Tempe, the bus pulled up to a flat-roofed building in a dicey neighborhood, next to an adult bookstore. Price looked out the window and said, "Regular hole in the wall." Stanley shook his head and said, "It ain't even that." But Nita's Hideaway, as the place was called, turned out to be far better than it looked: an ironic simulacrum of the sort of bar that George Shuffler calls a "skull orchard," with black velvet paintings (J.F.K., a squatting cowboy with a lariat, bullfighters, galleons, a charioteer), a pool table, and comfortable easy chairs in a side room. It was the natural habitat of Stanley’s newest admirers—the tattooed, the pierced, the dreadlocked, and the shaven-headed—who have discovered him either through "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" or through certifiably cool music stars (Yoakam, Welch, Dylan) who have certified him as even cooler. Yoakam has gone as far as to call him an "archangel."

Ricky Skaggs had suggested to me that Stanley now transcends blue-grass. "He's become like an old African," Skaggs said, "a world-music person." Stanley’s best performances involve you so deeply that any sense of a particular genre gets lost, the way the book, the page, and finally the words disappear in a great work of literature. A few other American musicians have had this gift: Armstrong, Ellington, Bill Monroe, Merle Haggard, James Brown, Howlin Wolf. Despite bluegrass's mystique of mountain purity and Afro-Druidic roots—what Monroe called its "ancient tones"—there's nothing inherently special about it. Good bluegrass—like good blues, good jazz, and good rock and roll—is sweet and sad, wild and sexy. Mediocre bluegrass, which you can hear at any festival from a dozen perfectly competent parking-lot bands, is among the most wearisome music on the planet; the more it tries to stretch its parameters—with arty lyrics or bebop licks— the more evident its limitations become. Ralph Stanley understood that the way to go was to simplify, intensify, countrify. As Steve Sparkman explained it to me, "Take a little block about that big and put everything in it and keep it there. Ralph’s been the king of that."

At Nita's, Stanley played the two best sets I heard him do. Sometimes fatigue or irritation revs him up more than a good night's rest, and maybe a long day of travelling to a hip hellhole did the trick. He delivered violently intense versions of "Pretty Polly" and "Little Maggie"; his two-banjo breaks with Sparkman had an unaccustomed aggressiveness; and his shamelessly over-the-top harmonies seemed to defy anybody who'd ever dared call him what he calls himself—"an old hillbilly." As he does now at every show, he sang "Oh Death"—it has become his greatest hit—and the whole bar fell silent. When he got to "I come to take the soul," he executed a semi-yodelled upward turn on the last word that gave me chills. After two weeks on the road, Stanley’s voice was shot, but he didn't apologize; he was overdriving it the way a rock-and-roll guitarist overdrives an amplifier into grainy distortion, and he seemed to be revelling in the rawness. The crowd at Nita’s might not have been able to tell you—as the crowd at Freight 8c Salvage probably could—the name of everyone who had been a Clinch Mountain Boy in 1958, but they understood the truest secret of Ralph Stanley’s appeal: a bedrock punkishness, a righteous lack of ease in this world, a refusal to comfort or be comforted.

From the beginning of his career, Stanley, like almost every country performer from Roy Acuff to George Jones, has sung mini-dramas of sin and redemption—"Are You Afraid to Die?," "My Sinful Past," “Cry from the Cross," "When I Wake Up to Sleep No More." Fifteen years ago, he wrote a song titled “I’ll Answer the Call." Yet, until last summer, it was only words. "I went to this country church," Stanley told me, "and I heard this man preach, name's Ezra Junior Davis. After we left the church house, two ladies were going to be baptized. The Clinch River runs by there, and I thought that river was pretty—pretty shade trees. From then on, I could see that river. Well, one Saturday night I couldn't sleep much— worried, had that on my mind—and I got up about four-thirty and called Brother Junior and told him I wanted to be baptized there in the Clinch River that day."

Stanley took me to a graveyard near his old home, at the top of Smith Ridge. "There's Grandpa right here," he said, "and Grandma on the other side of that tree. My mother. And there's Carter"— he pointed to a mausoleum. Next to it was an identical mausoleum with two names and dates of birth carved on it— "Me and Jimmi s resting place someday." From below came a sound that might have been a woodpecker or an idling chain saw. I asked Stanley about a gravestone with a Harley-Davidson carved on it. A father and son, distant cousins on his mother's side, he guessed; they'd both died of drug overdoses. "You see that little bitty house over there, painted white on this end?" Stanley said. "That's the house my mother and I had. The old one burned that used to set there, where I was raised, and I built that little house for her." He pointed to another house. "Carter built that little yellow one. My first cousin lives there now." What about those houses, over to the left? "That's some of their son-in-laws, daughters, and so forth. It's all family down here."

The next day, a rainy Sunday morning, Stanley and I got into his Lincoln Town Car and drove over to Grundy. The Hale Creek Primitive Baptist Church, just outside town, was a new, plain white building, across the road from a rocky stream, a picnic pavilion, and a futuristic-looking power transfer station. Nearby stood the original log church, now in disrepair. Inside, rows of padded benches faced a table that had a display of artificial flowers and a box of tissues. Stanley s "brothers and sisters," as the members call themselves, were mostly around his age. He greeted them in the group's ritual embrace—a handshake, then a hug— and chatted about coon hunting, about which relative was in the hospital, about the grandkids.

The service began when one woman, then two, started singing amid the chitchat. (Primitive Baptists allow no instruments in church, and sing only in unison.) Gradually, everyone joined in, but I could hardly hear Stanley: he's so used to leading other singers and obeying his own instincts that he finds it hard to follow the turns in the melodies. Several elders felt inspired to stand and preach. One prayed aloud for "the little children on drugs and alcohol"; another pointed to a window and said, with tears on his face, "All these raindrops, and I see them being taken away, one by one. And each one has a meaning."

Brother Junior, a well-barbered young man with wire-rimmed glasses, began to preach in an unprepossessing mumble, but soon he was singing a King James-like cadence in a scorching tenor that would have shone in any bluegrass band. Men and women wept; some rushed up to shake his hand and hug him. Stanley watched and listened.

After the service ended, the brothers and sisters remained standing to sing one more song: "Happy Birthday." Today, Brother Ralph turned seventy-four. He had momentarily forgotten all about it. But he smiled like a good sport at all the fuss over him—spared over, as the song says, till another year.