Excerpt from Bristol Herald Courier
TOM NETHERLAND | SPECIAL TO THE HERALD COURIER
May 19, 2018 Updated May 20, 2018
On stage with three generations of Stanleys: Ralph Stanley, II, 39, Jimmie Stanley, 78, and Ralph Stanley III, 12.
TOM NETHERLAND | Special to the Herald Courier
"When I sing," said Ralph Stanley II, standing at his father’s grave, "I feel it."
COEBURN, Va. — “This is where Ralph and Carter played when they were little boys,” Jimmie Stanley said.
Ralph Stanley’s widow stood on an expanse of land high atop Smith Ridge whereupon will stage Dr. Ralph Stanley’s 48th Annual Hills of Home Festival.
As the wind gently wove through her hair, she cast her eyes all about as if taking in the scene for the first time.
“They grew up here,” Stanley, 78, who married the late bluegrass legend in 1968, said. “It’s a special place.”
Hills of Home, long one of bluegrass’ marquee festivals, resumes its history on May 24 and runs through May 26. Ralph Stanley II and the Clinch Mountain Boys play each day and night. His wife, Kristi Stanley, and her Running Blind band appear Thursday.
“It’s so exciting,” said Kristi Stanley, 36. “There’s a lot of history here.”
Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers headline Thursday night. Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out lead Friday while Larry Sparks & The Lonesome Ramblers helm Saturday’s lineup.
“I’m trying to keep it in the tradition,” said Stanley II. “The way dad did.”
Two years after Stanley’s death, and three since he last sang at the event, his son runs the festival. He’s done so since 2012’s installment.
“Dad gave me a call after the 41st annual festival,” Stanley II, 39, said while seated under a pavilion that, come Thursday, will house the bulk of the festival’s attendees. “He said, ‘Two, come over to the house. There’s something I want to talk to you about.’”
Already past the age of 80, the elder Stanley made his wishes known. He wanted to slow down. He offered the reins of the festival to his son.
“He said, ‘If you don’t do it, I’m shutting it down,’” Stanley II said. “I said, ‘Being that’s the case, I’ll do it.’ I was nervous when I walked out of his house.”
Improvements afoot, longtime patrons of the festival will take notice. New coats of blue and white paint adorn the stage and the site’s numerous structures.
“This will be my seventh year,” Stanley II, who inherited his father’s Clinch Mountain Boys band, said. “It’s rewarding to see people come in here, singing Ralph Stanley songs. When I get on stage, it’s full.”
Stanley II sings bluegrass. Vocally, he’s far closer in tone and style to that of his late uncle Carter’s than to his father’s voice of the Appalachians.
“When I sing, I feel it,” Stanley II said. “I try to sing from the heart. I try to stay true to dad and Carter’s music, but I’ve got to be myself.”
Larry Sparks headlines. A longtime devotee of the Stanley Brothers, in addition to his status as a bona fide bluegrass legend, Sparks maintains a rare distinction.
“He’s been to every single one of these festivals,” Stanley II said. “This will be his 48th.”
Sparks’ history with the Stanley Brothers began before the festival’s inception. He played in their Clinch Mountain Boys band as a teenager.
“I worked part-time with them for a while, fall of ‘64. We did some dates in Ohio, Michigan, Virginia,” said Sparks, 70. “That first show was in Hamilton, Ohio. I’ll never forget it. Carter told me to kick off ‘Rank Stranger.’ I kicked off too fast. He said, ‘oh, boy, you kicked that off too fast.’”
Carter Stanley died in 1966. After a short hiatus, Ralph continued. Sparks joined the Clinch Mountain Boys as the band’s guitarist and voice in place of Carter’s.
“Boy,” Sparks said, “Carter sure had soul and heart.”
A large black and white photograph of Carter and Ralph Stanley, affixed to the top end of the pavilion, now faces all who stride on stage at the festival. Performers can’t miss it or the brothers’ monumental presence.
“Maybe it’ll inspire them when they perform on stage,” Stanley II said.
Take the drive to Hills of Home. Located on Smith Ridge along Carter Stanley Highway, which veers off Doctor Ralph Stanley Highway, the site bears a Coeburn address. However, it’s miles and seemingly endless curves up, up and away from the town.
Perhaps they should call it Heaven. Fog often intermingles with emerald green grass and wafting tree tops along the rolling mountaintop.
Carter in 1925 and Ralph Stanley in 1927 were born about three miles down the mountain on Big Spraddle Creek to mother Lucy and father Lee Stanley. Born a Smith, Lucy grew up on Smith Ridge, which was where she moved her boys in 1932.
“They romped all over these hills,” Jimmie Stanley said. “I think of Ralph and Carter romping around here. This is their old home place.”
She stood in the family’s cemetery, a few steps from the brothers’ final resting place.
“Years ago before dad died, Bob Dylan flew in and visited Carter’s grave,” Stanley II said. “You can visit dad and Carter’s graves. We’ll have Stanley Brothers music playing in the cemetery during the festival.”
Two years ago and down the hill, Stanley’s casket rested on stage during his funeral. Now he’s interred where he frolicked as a child and learned to play clawhammer banjo from his mother.
Two years dead though far from gone, all who knew him say Ralph Stanley made it home.
“I miss him,” Jimmie Stanley said. “I feel lost without him.”
Whereas the festival began as a way to memorialize Carter Stanley, it’s morphed into a legacy event. It honors Ralph Stanley, voice of Southwest Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains.
“It’s special,” Stanley II said.
If the mountains that bore him could sing, they’d sound like Ralph Stanley. It’s to that monumental force of life and now in death that the festival stands upon, thrives from and carries with onward into the future.
“This is one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever see in your life,” Stanley II said. “It’s like you can reach up and touch the sky. You’re almost to heaven.”
Tom Netherland is a freelance writer. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.