My fondest memory of Ralph Stanley is from May 2004, when the bluegrass music chieftain was on tour as part of the Great High Mountain Tour. The multi-act, Americana-heavy production had been booked into Rupp Arena that month, but in preparing an advance story on the show, Herald-Leader photographer Mark Cornelison and I were granted atypically broad backstage access for an earlier tour stop in Cincinnati. There, we were allowed to interview and take photos of the dozen or so acts on the bill.
Upon arriving that afternoon, I was led to a table where Jerry Douglas, Buck White and Stanley sat in casual conversation. I turned a tape recorder on and the four of us simply talked — sometimes about music, but largely about topics far removed from the business at hand. When Mark had his gear set up, road manager Bob Neuwirth, who was already busy with myriad other duties, began sifting through schedules to determine which artists were available for impromptu photo sessions and, more importantly, where they could be shot. That’s when Stanley spoke up. “You could take some pictures of me playing banjo in my dressing room if you like.”
The room went silent. Dead silent. Getting to photograph Stanley — the artist who almost single-handedly defined the role of the clawhammer banjo in string music, the bluegrass traditionalist who turned a spiritual like O Death into a pop hit of sorts in the wake of its ghostly inclusion in the Coen Brothers O Brother, Where Art Thou? — in such an intimate setting was kind of the bluegrass equivalent of getting to sit in on a sketch session with Picasso. Stanley wasn’t the only major bluegrass elder of the day. But since the death of Bill Monroe in 1996, Stanley was viewed as the music’s most patriarchal figure, an artist nearly as old and practiced as the music itself. So yes, Stanley’s generous offer was accepted, and Mark’s resulting photos are represented by the fabulous shot above.
Stanley, who died Thursday at age 89, had remained an active touring performer until relatively recently. We’ll leave his litany of artistic accomplishments for others to dwell on. Suffice to say, Stanley was a quietly authoritative figure, whether he was leading an ensemble through the gospel affirmation of Angel Band, sounding beyond ghostly within the quietly rapturous singing of O Death, or letting the strings fly through Clinch Mountain Backstep. He was a pioneer during the early days of bluegrass, a stately ambassador for its preservation later in life and an innovator and a gentleman at all points in between.