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Ralph Stanley: I Worshipped You By Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Friday, July 15, 2016

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By now, many of us are starting to come to grips with the death of bluegrass giant Ralph Stanley on June 23 at the age of 89. Like me, I imagine many of you are replaying in your mind songs you heard Ralph sing on stage: “Hey, Keith!” “Watch it, Ralph!” “I can’t swaller that/Things ain’t shaping up here from where I’m at…” (Ralph and Keith Whitley singing Kitten And The Cat.) This past weekend at our Murphy Method Women’s Jam Camp, Casey and I honored Ralph’s memory each day by starting off with some Stanley Brothers songs: Daybreak in Dixie, Take Your Shoes Off Moses, East Virginia Blues, Paul and Silas Bound in Jail, Angel Band, and I Saw the Light.

Just now, I got curious to see if I sang the same verses to Paul and Silas as Carter did so I pulled up the YouTube video from their album Good Old Camp Meeting Songs. OMG! I was blown away with Ralph’s incredible kickoff. It was so good that I forgot all about the verses and messaged one of my banjo students: “You have to learn Ralph’s break to this. See if you can hear where he uses the G lick in the C chord! It’s wonderful!” If there’s anything more wonderful than a G lick played against a C chord, I don’t know what it is. Unless it’s singing a G chord against a C chord. I heard Dede Wyland and her band do that very thing Saturday night at our Jam Camp when they sang Vince Gill’s High Lonesome Sound. I absolutely came out of my seat. After they’d finished I asked bass player Ira Gitlin what was going on and he explained that the notes of the G chord (he called it a “one” chord but I knew what he meant) were being sung while the band was playing a “four” chord (I knew he meant a C chord). He said that was the kind of harmony Bill Monroe and Mac Wiseman used in Can’t You Hear Me Calling. I’d always loved that odd note Monroe hit in the phrase “A million times I’ve loved you, Bess.” Now I knew why. It is The Sound. The Sound that the Stanley Brothers used on so many of their songs including Thy Burdens Are Greater Than Mine. (The Lynn Morris Band covered that song and used that same harmony. Go, Lynn and Marshall!)

I write about Ralph’s music because I don’t have any personal stories to tell about Ralph. I worked many festivals with him—when I played bass with Betty Fisher and when I played banjo with Red and Murphy—but Ralph and I did not become close personal friends. I even volunteered to watch Curly Ray Cline’s record table for him one time in Alabama when the Clinch Mountain Boys were on stage with Ralph, and when Curly Ray got back to the table he gave me one of his Curly Ray Cline key chains. But Curly Ray and I did not become fast friends and helping him out did not advance my friendship with Ralph. I even once, in my naïve years, wrote a song for Curly Ray, who almost always sang a humorous number on Ralph’s show. The first song I heard him sing was If It Hadn’t Been For A Man Named Flem Jones. Then there was Why Me, Ralph? Later on he sang Money In The Bank (a take-off on Little Roy Lewis’s show piece Honey In The Rock). I wrote him a parody of the Kenny Rogers’ song Lucille that was popular at the time. The chorus of Kenny’s song went: “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille/Four hungry children and a crop in the field…” My song was titled Loose Wheel and my chorus went: “You picked a fine time to leave me, loose wheel/If I wreck Ralph’s bus, oh, how bad I would feel…” I even called up Curly Ray to get his address so I could send him the song, and I cannot tell you how completely startled I was to get him on the phone. He was just as nice as he could be. He gave me the address and I sent him the song. I also sent him one of our new Red and Murphy LPs, Pall Mall Reds, hoping he might remember that I’d watched his record table. In my wide-eyed innocence I fully expected Curly Ray to start singing Loose Wheel. But, nada. Of course, nada! I get that now. Too many people sending him too many things. Too many people wanting him to do something for them. Too many people! Too many people!  

As you can see, I worshipped Ralph—from an appropriate distance—and devoured his music, both the singing and the banjo playing. My favorite singing Before Bluegrass was the singing I heard at Amy’s Creek Baptist Church in North Georgia. We’d have our family reunion there and even though it was only once a year the music made an indelible impression on my heart. The singing moved me in a way that make my insides feel funny. And when I first heard an LP of the Stanley Brothers singing Never Grow Old I felt the same way because that was an Amy’s Creek song from the shaped-note Heavenly Highway Hymnal and Ralph and Carter sounded like those folks at Amy’s Creek. How could I not love the Stanley Brothers? As Mason Williams wrote in a completely different context, “You done stomped on my heart.”

My sister Argen also loved the Stanley Brothers and we tried so very hard to sound like Ralph and Carter when we were singing Pig in a Pen and There’s a Rabbit in a Log and How Mountain Girls Can Love (we switched the gender, of course). But our harmony singing, learned from the Broadman and Baptist hymnals and not at a shaped-note singing school, didn’t allow for the addition of those “weird,” spine-tingling Stanley Brothers notes. We probably couldn’t even “hear” them at the time, much less attempt to hit them. Yet, those were the very notes I loved so well. I was in despair that our singing couldn’t capture The Sound.  

As the years went by and bluegrass became my life’s work, I would on occasion, get closer to The Sound (“That’s the note, that’s the note!”) but for the most part I continued to sing regular, straight harmony. It’s good harmony, but I don’t sound like Ralph! But with my banjo I can play the heck out of a G chord against a C chord. And that’s something.

Thank you, Ralph, for all the great music. Thanks for the opportunity to watch you work your hillbilly magic on stage long before O Brother Where Art Thou made you a National Treasure. Thanks for your autobiography, Man of Constant Sorrow. In closing, let me mix and mangle song titles to say, “Ralph, I hardly knew ye, but still I worshipped you.”

PS: I couldn’t work a mention of John Wright’s most excellent book on Ralph into this article but here is a link to the Banjo Newsletter website with my 1993 review. I highly recommend the book.

You can find Murphy's teaching materials at

1 comment on “Ralph Stanley: I Worshipped You By Murphy Henry”

Banjo Lefty Says:
Saturday, July 16, 2016 @6:36:00 AM

Very nice essay.

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