Bob Dylan and the Stanley Brothers
ARTICLE BY Bob Russell
On the road one night in the late 1940s, Carter Stanley, his brother Ralph, and their band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, were traveling back from a performance in North Carolina to Bristol, Tennessee. Carter, the main songwriter of the group, had turned on the car’s dome light to allow him to put together a new song idea en route. As Carter subsequently related to musician/folklorist Mike Seeger, Ralph complained strongly that the illumination was making his job of driving more difficult. At the end of the journey, however, Carter unveiled to the band his newly-born creation, “The White Dove,” destined to become a classic, one that poignantly hit the familiar bluegrass themes of devotion and family. As Carter put it to Seeger, Ralph “hasn’t fussed any more” about the unwanted light. On March 1, 1949, the Stanley Brothers recorded the song at the in-demand Castle Studio in Nashville’s Tulane Hotel, releasing it with “Gathering Flowers for the Master’s Bouquet” on April 4, 1949.
Fast forward 48 years to a small club, the Roxy, in Atlanta, Georgia, on December 2, 1997. To open his second electric set, Bob Dylan and band (in the tenth year of his Never Ending Tour) premiered the Stanleys’ “The White Dove,” a heartfelt rendition with a stately musical background (the soundcheck earlier in the day, perhaps more naturally, had run through an acoustic version). Bob went on to play the song live a total of ten times in all, with the final performance on April 3, 2000, in Cedar Rapids, this time acoustic. A listen to the recordings of these renditions leaves no doubt of the deep respect that Dylan has for this song and the Stanley Brothers.
This is one example of Bob Dylan’s familiarity with and admiration for the Stanley Brothers, a group considered, along with Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs, true legends of first-generation bluegrass. What other indications are there of Dylan’s longtime interest in the Stanleys and what clues can we find about its origin and influence?
Stanley Origins and Style
Carter and Ralph Stanley, born in Dickenson County, Virginia, in the mid-1920s, played together locally in the early 1940s before forming their classic band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, in 1946. This historic group lasted twenty years, up to the death of Carter due to liver failure in 1966. After a period of indecision, Ralph put together his own band and went out solo, continuing the Stanley tradition for another fifty amazing years. Musicians such as Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, and Larry Sparks passed through Ralph’s band, carrying forward the classic sound and then moving on to find their own voices.
As musicians following the same general path laid out first in the 1940s by Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys (his sidemen being Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, and Howard Watts), the Stanley Brothers are usually classified as a traditional bluegrass band. The attributes of this genre include instrumentation (guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and bass, for example, but no electrics allowed), tempo (at times but not always brisk, with the intangible quality of “drive”), and subject matter (equal measures of Saturday night revelry and Sunday morning reverence).
While Monroe and his band created a landmark American original style out of the Southern country string band tradition, and Flatt & Scruggs turned an acrimonious departure from Bill into twenty years of success mixing bluegrass and folk songs, a somewhat different path let the Stanley Brothers stake out their own turf in that traditional trinity of bluegrass greats. What differentiated them from the other pioneers of the day was the derivation of their music from old-time mountain traditions. “Old-time mountain style, that’s what I like to call it,” Ralph stated in later years. “When I think of bluegrass, I think of Bill Monroe.” Mountain music springs from British Isles tunes, especially ballads, as modified over the years in the Appalachian Mountains, mixed with African traditions brought to America by slaves, especially those traditions related to banjos and singing style. The Stanley sound was firmly within Anglo/African musical traditions, and Ralph in his solo career took them further, incorporating the older clawhammer banjo style in addition to the three-finger style that Earl Scruggs had popularized. He also performed powerful a cappella numbers, such as the mournful dirge “O Death” for the award-winning film O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Stanley Brothers toured tirelessly through the 1950s, covering almost exclusively the bluegrass hotbed of the American South. Bob Dylan would have had few or no opportunities to see them in concert as a young man, but would likely have been exposed to their music on the radio in Minnesota or later on Izzy Young’s Folklore Center records in New York City. Shortly after Dylan’s arrival in New York, the Stanleys performed at two concerts there sponsored by Friends of Old Time Music, a group which included early Dylan friend Mike Seeger. Although there’s no evidence Dylan attended the concerts, one can imagine the Stanleys as another ingredient in the musical stew being formed in the young man’s mind, maybe one of his first exposures to traditional mountain music (and thus indirectly to the ancient traditions of the British Isles). In 1966, Dylan told an interviewer, “I listen to the old ballads … I could give you descriptive detail of what they do to me, but some people would probably think my imagination had gone mad.” The songs of the Stanleys included such dark, pre-twentieth century ballads as “Pretty Polly,” “Little Maggie,” and “Poor Ellen Smith.” These were mixed with gospel numbers (e.g., “I’ll Fly Away”), instrumentals (Ralph’s own banjo tune “Hard Times”), folk songs (“Handsome Molly”), and, most importantly, their original songs, most from the prolific pen of Carter Stanley. What all of these musical types shared were the hallmarks of American mountain music: the ancient tone (scales) of the old music; close harmony, notably the high, lonesome sound of brother Ralph’s tenor; and spirited, if perhaps not virtuoso, “ragged but right” technique on the traditional acoustic instruments. Dylan’s later discovery of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music must have been a reinforcement of his earlier exposure to the musical legacy of the mountains and traditional folk.
The Stanley Brothers and solo Ralph Stanley have a large catalog of albums which can still be easily found. As good a place as any to start delving into their work is The Stanley Brothers – The Early Starday King Years 1958-1961, which includes versions of most tracks referred to here.
Man of Constant Sorrow
Bob Dylan’s debut, eponymous album on Columbia was released in 1962, featuring only two original tracks. To fill in the album, Dylan turned to his musical influences, covering, among others, Roy Acuff, Bukka White, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and the Stanley Brothers.
“Man of Constant Sorrow” was written around 1914 by Dick Burnett, a blind Kentucky songwriter and fiddler. Although performed by several artists in the following years, the song became known when recorded and released by the Stanley Brothers in 1950-51, with Ralph on the lead vocal. It was then re-recorded (as was common for the group) in 1959, this time with an awkward call-and-refrain added in the chorus. Their recordings and subsequent performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 led to several renditions by early-1960s folk artists. Bob Dylan’s version of the lyrics owed something to Joan Baez and others, and certainly the solo guitar/harmonica accompaniment could not reproduce that of a full string band. The vocals, though, take us right to the hills, with the 20-year-old attempting to emulate the world-weary bearing of an aging mountaineer musician (just as other cuts took on the persona of a soon-to-die Black bluesman). The way Dylan hangs on to the first syllable of each verse (like Caruso, per Bob) mirrored the Stanley recording, but with an even slower tempo to emphasize the mournful tone. The mountain music theme recurs in another song on that album, the Appalachian ballad of New Orleans prostitution “House of the Rising Sun,” as well as on “Freight Train Blues,” this time based on a Roy Acuff song.
Did Dylan match the ancient tones of the mountain, or of his various musical heroes honored on the debut album? He soon admitted, “I ain’t that good yet. I don’t carry myself yet the way that (they) have carried themselves. I hope to be able to someday, but they’re older people.”
“Man of Constant Sorrow” had a renaissance in 2000 with the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and subsequent “Down From the Mountain” concert tour, featuring Ralph Stanley and involving such Dylan collaborators as T-Bone Burnett, Emmylou Harris, Norman Blake, and Bob Neuwirth.
In May 1988, on the eve of the kick-off of the Never Ending Tour, Bob Dylan released the puzzling, frustrating album Down In the Groove. Cobbled together over four years of recording sessions using a host of musicians and sources, the release met with negative reviews and reception, with subsequent years bringing no substantial re-evaluation.
Mixed with this odd collection of insubstantial additions to the Dylan body of work was one very moving song, especially to aficionados of traditional American music. “Rank Strangers to Me” is a ballad as closely identified with the Stanley Brothers as anything they ever recorded (under the name “Rank Stranger”). The brothers recorded their popular version of this Albert E. Brumley, Sr. composition in 1960 in Jacksonville, Florida. In two spare verses and a chorus, the ballad touches on loss, isolation, longing, and death.
“I wandered again to my home in the mountains, where in youth’s early dawn I was happy and free,” begins the tale, but this would be no joyful reunion with family and friends, as the plaintive vocal (either Stanley or Dylan) makes clear. No familiar faces greet the protagonist, no recognition, no acknowledgement. The only ones in sight are utter strangers to the singer. If the young Dylan had begun in “Bob Dylan’s Dream” and “Restless Farewell” to feel growing regret at the loss of youth and early friends, this song advances that narrative to a later time when separation is total: “They knew not my name and I knew not their faces.”
Was there a positive note in Dylan’s “Rank Strangers to Me?” The sad lyric takes a hopeful turn in the second verse, with the prospect of a heavenly reunion, “Where no one will be a stranger to me.” Yet the mournful tone of Dylan’s vocal belies any immediate optimism, just as Carter Stanley’s lead did years before. The sparse instrumentation of the 1988 version recalled the Stanley version, while Bob’s distinctive voice put his own stamp on the track. A Dylan album composed completely of such older songs would wait until 1992, but in the meantime, “Rank Strangers to Me” would feature in 26 Never Ending Tour performances, always focused and powerful. Listen to the early (1988) Never Ending Tour version in Bristol, Connecticut, for an in-performance example, with fine guitar interplay between Dylan and G.E. Smith and a wailing vocal on the final chorus getting reaction from the crowd.
The Never Ending Tour
Echoes of the Stanley Brothers would be heard through Dylan’s Never Ending Tour. The aforementioned Stanley classics “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “White Dove,” and “Rank Strangers to Me” appeared at intervals through the tour from 1988 through the 2000s. For a time around the year 2000, Dylan opened many shows with a cover of older country, blues, and folk songs, representing artists such as Elizabeth Cotten and the country duo Johnnie and Jack. Usually, this opener was viewed by reviewers and fans as a warm-up, almost a throw-away to be played while audio levels were adjusted and the audience settled into seats. A closer look at the selections themselves and their performances, however, suggests that these were carefully chosen as choice representatives of the rootsy American musical tradition that Dylan had grown up loving.
Among the chestnuts used as concert openers were no fewer than four from the repertoire of the Stanley Brothers and/or solo Ralph Stanley (“I Am the Man, Thomas”; “Hallelujah, I’m Ready to Go”; “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior”; and “Roving Gambler”). “I Am the Man, Thomas,” credited to Ralph Stanley and Larry Sparks, is a gospel number telling the biblical story of the disciple (Doubting) Thomas and his meeting with a risen Jesus. Dylan was no longer performing many of his own songs from his born-again series of three albums, but he could still bring fire to this song and lyrics that would have been comfortable on Saved: “They crowned my head with thorns, Thomas, I am the Man, They nailed me to the cross, Thomas, I am the Man.”
In total, this song was performed fifty-nine times from 1999 to 2002. “‘The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs’” Dylan told Newsweek’s David Gates in 1997. “I Am the Man, Thomas” is illustrative; in less than three minutes, Dylan uses the song’s lyrics to describe pain, faith, and doubt, not didactically or intrusively, but in a simple and direct manner. The listener does not need to evaluate the singer’s own belief in the story or make a leap of faith to a theological conclusion. What the singer conveys is a heartfelt story, made real for the duration of the song.
Later in some Never Ending Tour sets was another Stanley Brothers song, “Stone Walls and Steel Bars,” a classic country theme of a “three-time loser” being led by guards to his prison execution, “all for the love of another man’s wife.” Listen, for instance, to the performance in Vienna, Virginia on August 23, 1997, and hear the extended, mournful way that Dylan expresses sadness and regret for the mistakes of a fictional life; country icons such as George Jones and Willie Nelson would be proud to call this performance their own. Bucky Baxter and Larry Campbell add characteristically atmospheric support. “Stone Walls and Steel Bars” was performed thirty-seven times in five years.
While only performed live once by Dylan, the traditional Appalachian song “Little Maggie” was one of the folk/country tracks on his 1992 solo acoustic album Good As I Been to You. The tune had been a signature piece for the Stanley Brothers, recorded first in the late 1940s, again in 1960, at the same session as “Rank Stranger,” and later rerecorded by a solo Ralph Stanley. Dylan’s released version was properly mournful and slower than the Stanley version, serving the lyrical vision of Maggie as “Drinkin’ down her troubles, over courtin’ some other man.”
The lone live version, from March 18, 1992, in Perth, Australia is an example of a fine song not served well by its new arrangement. The tune was now brisk, and Bucky Baxter, in his very first concert of the Never Ending Tour, did his best to spice it up with pedal steel licks; drummer Ian Wallace’s plodding beat, however, dragged it all down, and after five minutes, it ended. Another arrangement could have made it worth hearing, but this Maggie was never retried over the years.
One related note should be made on Dylan’s creative recasting of lyric phrases in the case of one song credited to Ralph Stanley and Chubby Anthony in 1959 and recorded by the Stanleys in July of that year. Consider the first verse of that song, “Highway of Regret”:
Ain’t talking, just walking
Down that highway of regret
Heart’s burning, still yearning
For the best girl this poor boy’s ever met.
Next see the first chorus of Dylan’s “Ain’t Talkin’,” the concluding song on the 2006 album Modern Times:
Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’
Through this weary world of woe
Heart burnin’, still yearnin’
No one on earth would ever know.
Dylan has taken a simple but heartrending tale of romance gone bad and weaved it into his own complex and mysterious meditation on life, death, religion, and whatever else the listener may draw from it. Notice also that the earlier Stanley Brothers song’s title is not wasted: the phrase “Highway of Regret” appeared in the distinctly non-bluegrass 1997 song “Make You Feel My Love.”
Another musical point should be noted about the Never Ending Tour. Over time, and until later years, Bob Dylan’s lead guitar playing became a prominent part of the band’s sound, both acoustic and electric. Some looked at this as a mixed bag, apt to be alternately shaky or exquisite (see/listen to Bob’s guitar solo in a 1993 “Forever Young” on David Letterman for the latter). There were a few pioneer country singers who could ably pick lead breaks, a practice which likely influenced Bob’s playing within his band. Floyd Tillman, Cowboy Copas, and early Dylan hero Hank Snow were prime examples that would have been in Dylan’s consciousness by the 1950s.
In the bluegrass field, the Stanley Brothers were innovators in the use of lead guitar, an instrument normally relegated to rhythm status in the genre, working with the bass to drive the songs in the absence of frowned-upon drums. Syd Nathan of King Records had suggested that the group deemphasize the fiddle and use guitars more prominently, as the Delmore Brothers had successfully done on the same label. As the band’s sound developed, musicians Bill Napier, Curley Lambert, and Ralph Mayo at various times played lead guitar, complementing Carter Stanley’s solid rhythm (the latter played with thumb and fingerpicks, a la Lester Flatt). The guitarist most associated with the group, though, was George Shuffler from North Carolina. Shuffler could lend color with a walking bass or rip through a rapid-fire lead break. Most distinctive of the Shuffler style was the crosspicking guitar style he developed, playing across a series of strings to create a rippling, shimmering sound reminiscent of banjo rolls. Dylan would have heard this lead picking in an acoustic setting from Stanley records; this and the other early country music examples would have fired his imagination about what he could add onstage instrumentally beyond rhythm strumming.
In late 1997, Bob Dylan traveled to Nashville to record with Ralph Stanley, one track out of more than 30 cut for Clinch Mountain Country, a double CD with Ralph Stanley and various guest artists. The song recorded, “The Lonesome River,” was originally cut by the Stanley Brothers on November 3, 1950, as a trio vocal with Carter Stanley handling lead duty. With Dylan, the tale of lost love was recast as a duo, Dylan on lead and Ralph Stanley lending his chilling high tenor on the choruses. The first verse, sung by Dylan, sets the scene:
I sit here alone on the banks of the river
The lonesome wind blows the water rolls high
I hear a voice calling out there in the darkness
I sit here alone too lonesome to cry.
Dylan and Stanley join together on the mournful chorus in the authentic traditional bluegrass style which was a hallmark of the Stanley sound. A seminal influence now was a colleague and collaborator, and Dylan had contributed in an authentic but personal style. Ralph Stanley’s wife Jimmi called “The Lonesome River,” the best track on the project, no doubt heartfelt, but also an effective marketing quote. Dylan himself stated simply, if perhaps exaggeratedly, “This is the highlight of my career.”
Bob Dylan has been influenced by many and, of course, went on to be one of the greatest influencers in popular music. Much has been said and written about his early interest in Woody Guthrie and other folk pioneers; in Hank Williams, Hank Snow, and Jimmie Rodgers among other early country music heroes; and in the many bluesmen who influenced Dylan’s debut album and beyond.
Alongside these Dylan-influential musical genres, we must add bluegrass, an authentic American category born out of the blues and early string band music, and nurtured since the 1940s by a series of musicians, both the giants of the field and countless grass-roots bands preserving the old traditions and taking the music forward. While other bluegrass pickers and singers would have entered Dylan’s consciousness and sparked his imagination, few have had the substantial and lasting impact of the two brothers from Virginia, Carter and Ralph Stanley.
Björner, Olof. The Yearly Chronicles.
Cantwell, Robert. Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound. Urbana, IL: Da
Dawidoff, Nicholas. In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music. New York, NY:
Dylan, Bob. Chronicles: Volume One. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Interview with Mike Seeger in March 1966, quoted by Gary Reid in liner notes to The Early Starday/King
Years, 1958-1961, Starday/King Records, 2003.
Reid, Gary B. The Music of the Stanley Brothers. Urbana, IL: Illinois, 2015.