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I wondered if you could tell me about the place you grew up – I know you’re not too far from it now.
Well, I’m not. I was born and raised way back in the hills in the southwestern part of Virginia near a little place called McClure, Va., places called Clintwood and Coeburn, the closest towns around us.
Why have you never gone any farther away?
Well, I could always get as much work as I wanted to and stay at home, so I’d rather do that.
How did you first learn music – did you learn formally, or did you pick it up?
My mother played the five–string banjo, and she taught me how to tune it up, and do one tune, called “Shout, Little Lily,” and I went from there.
You’ve been associated with bluegrass, with old–time, with country – what music do you feel the most at home in?
You know, I like to do the traditional bluegrass, or old–time mountain music, whatever you want to call it. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do – I don’t, I haven’t experimented, you know, out in the world, to get anything any fancier or anything.
Why did you stay with the simple – what do you love about that sound?
That’s me – I’m simple. I grew up in the country, and I like to do it natural, the way I feel it.
Which songs – whether it’s one’s you’ve heard or ones, you’ve recorded – speak most to you?
I’d say “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Rank Stranger,” “Pretty Polly” and maybe “Little Maggie.”
Why those? I asked the public that requests it [laughs].
So you love the ones your audiences love.
There have been so many evolutions of bluegrass – the New Grass Revival, the young people mixing bluegrass with world music and so on – what do you think of those new approaches to music?
I hope I’m the best – it’s good music, and there’s plenty of room for it, but me, I prefer traditional.
Who are you listening to now?
Who am I listenin’ to?
I’m listenin’ to you right now!
You mean as far as entertainers?
I don’t listen to the radio too much, but usually I listen to Stanley Brothers and Ralph Stanley more than I do anybody!
That’s a good point. [laughs] Do you need to practice?
Yeah, I need to, but sometimes I get too lazy!
How else do you spend your time?
I just piddle around. You know, I own a little farm, and I like to fool around in the country and just run around. Just do this and that.
What about your family – do your children play music, or does your wife?
I have a son, Ralph II, that plays with me, and I have a grandson, Nathan Stanley, that plays with me. So that’s three generations on stage.
How often do you perform together?
Oh, most of the time we do two shows a week – we do about a hundred and fifty shows a year.
How do you maintain your energy for so much time on the road, for this many years?
The Lord’s blessed me, and I try to do right, and not expose myself, you know, any more than I have to.
What performance venues do you prefer?
You mean where I perform?
Well, not much. We get most of the time sell–out crowds and a good audience anywhere we go.
You have performed internationally, in Japan and other places – what countries have you performed in?
We’ve been all over Europe, you know, we’ve been to Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, England, Germany, France, and Holland – all over Europe.
What is it about non–American audiences that surprises you?
We always have good audiences over there, you know, but I prefer to stay in the United States, because I don’t like to fly, but we meet real good people overseas.
Do non-American audiences understand your music as much as American audiences?
They seem to – they seem to. They enjoy it real good.
I read that you attend a Primitive Baptist Church – is that the church you grew up in?
So you’ve gone there ever since you were a child?
Ever since I was a little, little child, a little boy.
Is there a strong musical tradition there?
The Mennonites are the same way.
Yeah, I can handle that.
So you don’t mind that they don’t use instruments?
They don’t use any instruments, but they buy every CD that I make, and they enjoy my music. They just don’t believe in it in the church.
How large is the church?
Oh small, small, something like 40 and 50 at a time.
The Library of Congress has named you a Living Legend. How do you feel about being called a Living Legend?
I’m thankful that I have lived long enough to become a legend, and I hope I deserve it.
Do you teach young players?
No, I don’t.
The only way is just them listening to me, you know – I don’t read any music, I just play by ear, and just when they listen to me, some listen to me, and try – you know, they copy, and listen to it on CD and sit down and play with it.
Are you still learning?
Am I still what?
Yeah, I don’t think you ever get too old to learn.
What are the lessons you’re learning?
Well, just experience, I guess, you know, I’m just learnin’ more about travelin’, all the time, not anything that I could brag about, or tell you about, but I don’t think you’re too old to learn.
I know you have a new museum along the Crooked Road. Can you tell me about it, and about that project?
That’s somethin’ I’m really proud of – it’s a $2 million museum, and it goes way back to childhood and it’s got all of my awards that I’ve won, and it’s got Stanley Brothers in it, and a lot of the Clinch Mountain Boys that’s played through the years, and if you want to get the live history of the Stanley Brothers and Ralph Stanley, you can go to that museum, ‘cause it goes back to when we was little boys.
Do you think there’s a risk that bluegrass will disappear?
Well, I just don’t know – I hope not. I hope it don’t. But as far as traditional, there’s not too much left.
What about these young people who are going back to the traditional music?
Well, I’d say my son – he takes the Clinch Mountain Boys and plays some that I don’t go out to – he’s more traditional than most anybody I know of right now, ’cept me.
What is it about the mountains, and the geography of the mountains, that makes mountain music what it is?
It just rings out of these mountains, and I can’t explain it, you know, but it’s just a tradition here, and it’s where it started from. People like Carter Family, and Mainer’s Mountaineers – just good, down–to–earth music started right here in this area.
Would you have done anything different with your life, at this point?
I don’t think I’m qualified for anything else.
Oh, I don’t know.
You want the truth, don’t you?
Yes, I do.
What’s your next project, any upcoming CDs?
My next project?
A tribute to the Carter Family is one, and then I’ve got a gospel CD comin’ out. Sometime this summer they’ll both be out.
Do you decide the songs that will go on your CDs?
Yes, I do.
How do you decide what will go on them, what’s first, what’s last?
I just sing the songs that I like to sing, the songs that I can do justice to, and the kinda songs that we’ve had requested over the years.
Have you ever had to change your voice, or the way you play, compromise in any way?
Well, no, I never have. I don’t want to, and if I wanted to, I couldn’t. And I’m real proud – I’ve stuck to my roots, and I believe that’s why that I’ve been on the road for 59 years.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
No, I think we’ve covered just about everything!
Thank you very much. You have a safe trip, and enjoy your upcoming performances.
Thank you very much. I enjoyed talking with you!