MusicMusic Features

Ralph Stanley Plays the Classic City American Music Fest

There’s almost nothing more American than fireworks on the Fourth of July. When Dr. Ralph Stanley comes to the Melting Point on the 237th anniversary of the U.S. declaring its independence from Britain, there may not be any literal explosions, but the old-timer will hit the stage with a bang. The 86-year-old bluegrass pioneer has spent the better part of six decades popularizing traditional American music.

Devotees to bluegrass (or “old-time country music,” as Stanley prefers to call it) often speak in metaphysical terms, so it’s no surprise that the famed banjo player follows suit when speaking about his own music, insisting that acoustic instrumentation is a “natural sound.” When questioned about why he has held so tightly to traditional music in his career, the aphoristic Stanley nonchalantly remarks that he’s only playing music the way it’s supposed to be played.

Stanley’s reputation as a father of modern bluegrass precedes him. In the late ’70s, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in music from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, TN. In the new millennium, the Grand Ole Opry celebrated Stanley’s contributions to country music. But although Stanley enjoyed moderate commercial success early in his career, it wasn’t until his involvement in the soundtrack for the Cohen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? that his music earned widespread cultural currency. 

While Stanley’s contributions to that film are now regarded highly by critics, the story of his involvement sounds like a happy accident. According to Stanley, he was solicited by famed songwriter and producer T-Bone Burnett to be a part of the soundtrack recording sessions. Prior to the sessions, the two knew each other’s work, but hadn’t collaborated. Simply put, songs needed to be recorded, so Burnett hired some guns. 

When Burnett attempted to conduct the recording sessions with a little too much force, Stanley suggested that he do things his way: his voice a cappella, and nothing else on the track. His ensuing rendition of the traditional “O Death” spoke for itself.

Stanley’s work with Burnett also greased the gears for unlikely collaborations and associations with perennial rock giants like Lou Reed and Nick Cave. For the soundtrack to the 2012 film Lawless (for which Cave penned the screenplay), Stanley sang the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” while Cave and his band backed him up. An unlikely choice, maybe, but a few listens through Stanley’s take on the song and the divisions between rock and traditional American music begin to blur.

While he’s proud of all the work he’s done over the years, Stanley calls his work on those films “a real honor.” When discussing the soundtrack sessions, Stanley explains that the most important thing is that the songs “got out to so many people.” He might not exactly enjoy household-name status as a result, but he’s obviously pleased that his music has become somewhat ubiquitous.

Still, the man remains humble in spite of all of his accolades. Rather than reveling in the praise, he still prefers to get out in front of a crowd and play live. He is, of course, no stranger to the festival scene. (“My goodness, how many festivals?” he says with a laugh.) But although he has delighted in playing bigger events like Bonnaroo, Stanley says he prefers to play in familiar environs, like his own eponymous festival, which has taken place the past 44 years just a few miles outside of where he lives in Coburn, VA. The annual event takes place every Memorial Day weekend and features Stanley and other bluegrass giants.

Stanley might be the most well-known act performing at the fifth annual Classic City American Music Festival this July 4, but a host of exciting local talent will be joining him. Alt-country outfit Adam Klein & the Wild Fires will get the show started at 4 p.m. on Thursday, and Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys take the stage at 8 p.m. Athens mainstays Packway Handle Band close out the evening with their set at 10 p.m. The Honeycutters, BlueBilly Grit, High Strung String Band, BorderHop Trio and String Theory will perform at various times in between. The full schedule is listed in the Flagpole Calendar. There are many options for how to celebrate your Fourth, but if traditional American music waves your flag, there’s little doubt about where you need to spend the national holiday.

WHO: Fifth Annual Classic City American Music Festival
WHERE: Melting Point
WHEN: Thursday, July 4, 4 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $20 (adv.), $25 (door)