Remembering my old friend Ralph Stanley who was taken from us June 23, 2016!
Dr. Ralph Stanley died on June 23, 2016. He left us to be with God, joining his brother, Carter, whom preceded him in that journey back in 1966.
It was safe to say the original two Clinch Mountain Boys got the act back together when Dr. Ralph went to his maker. There is another “Clinch Mountain Boy” to whom I am particularly close and have been for approximately 20 years, Charlie Sizemore.
Dr. Ralph Stanley, a native of West-Virginia, was a remnant from a different time. He began recording with his brother, Carter, upon his first deciding he should play the banjo and sing as opposed to becoming a veterinarian.
Dr. Ralph once told this story about getting his first banjo…“I got my first banjo when I was a teenager. I guess I was 15, 16 years old. My aunt had this old banjo, and Mother bought it for me…paid $5 for it, which back then was probably like $5,000. [My parents] had a little store, and I remember my aunt took it out in groceries.”
Ralph Edmond Stanley would develop his own style of playing banjo called “claw hammer” learning from his mother. Carter Stanley died of complications of cirrhosis in 1966. Ralph Stanley had been the oldest living member of the Grand Ole Opry prior to his own passing the morning of June 23rd.
I had the privilege of knowing Dr. Ralph Stanley casually. Charlie had gotten me tickets to see him play at the Ryman Auditorium and I slipped backstage and swapped some “Charlie Sizemore” stories with him.
As one would well imagine, we both had quite a few. Dr. Ralph, as Charlie always referred to him, hired Sizemore just a week shy of Charlie’s 17th-birthday.
Charlie was his lead singer and lead guitar player for nine years before going out on his own, like Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley before him. Dr. Ralph Stanley, like Robert Frost would say of himself, was “…not a teacher, but an awakener.”
Dr. Ralph, though hiring Charlie Sizemore at the tender age of 16, didn’t just awaken in Charlie a desire to play Bluegrass music; but encouraged Charlie to go back and finish his education. Charlie graduated from the University of Kentucky with distinction and the Nashville School of Law with a Doctorate in Jurisprudence as its Founder’s Medal Recipient, an award given annually to the top graduate.
Plutarch, or Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, as he was referenced upon his becoming a citizen of Rome, once wrote “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” The great Greek essayist just fairly encapsulated, so succinctly, what Dr. Ralph so profoundly did for a young mountain boy from rural Kentucky desiring to express himself in the “mountain's music.”
I still think of my friend, Dr. Ralph Stanley often, and talk with his protégé, Charlie Sizemore, when Charlies feels up to it. He hasn’t been feeling well, lately.
For so long as his music survives, so shall Ralph Stanley. The same can be said of Ralph's brother, Carter.
I went through a tough time in my life. It was the encouragement of Charlie Sizemore which prodded me to continue to get out of bed and search for an avenue for making a difference and, hopefully, effecting change. This column was born from that encouragement.
You see, “the mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” That quote is attributed to William Arthur Ward, one of America’s most quoted writers of inspirational maxims.
While he may have unearthed the maxim, the wisdom of those words rested for years beneath the rocks where “mountain folks” discover their truths. These become the “truths” whispered on the wind and captured by the ears of young West-Virginians, some named “Stanley," who would come to inspire a pair of Appalachia mountain boys from just over the Kentucky state-line.
To Ralph Stanley from Mathew 25:21, I would remark“…Well done, thou good and faithful servant…enter thou into the joy of thy Lord…” To Charlie Sizemore, I would implore him to hang in there. To the rest of us, who appreciate men like Ralph and Carter Stanley, I would simply note that men like these don’t stay with us forever. They are becoming increasingly hard to find. They will never be replaced.
This is your old Uncle Abe Yokem, thinking about some old friends, and I am still up here SHOUTING FROM THIS MOUNTAIN-TOP!