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'The Ralph Stanley Story'

Documentary examines life of a cultural pioneer

Monday, February 10, 2003

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

At a time when bluegrass music was threatened with extinction, Ralph Stanley stopped looking forward and starting exploring the mountain music that had spawned it. It was the first backward step in a slow move forward that climaxed in the continuing success of the old-timey "O Brother Where Art Thou?" soundtrack.

"The Ralph Stanley Story"

Where: Film Kitchen series at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, Melwood Screening Room, 477 Melwood Ave., Oakland

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow

Tickets: $4, 412-316-3342 ext. 178


In "The Ralph Stanley Story," a 2000 documentary spotlighted in tomorrow's serving from the Film Kitchen series, filmmaker Herb E. Smith explores the life of an American original. Told through interviews with current and former band members, home movie footage and conversations with Stanley, the film breaks little new ground as it outlines a dossier that is already well chronicled. Instead, it further humanizes a cultural pioneer who chose one musical direction and has stuck with it for more than a half century.

"Hit me a D," says Stanley, asking for a note to get him started on an a cappella "Man of Constant Sorrow." As he rasps out the bluegrass classic made famous by his brother Carter Stanley, front man for The Stanley Brothers band, filmmaker Smith pans a mountain graveyard and finds the Stanley family plots, focusing on Carter's stone and the date Dec. 1, 1966. Carter Stanley's untimely death of an arterial hemorrhage forced his younger brother to make hard choices about the future of the band. Mainstream country and rock 'n' roll had long since absorbed most of their crowds, and bluegrass artists including The Stanley Brothers sometimes didn't earn enough money to make it home from tours.

Instead of going mainstream at the crossroad of his career, Stanley began incorporating older musical styles from higher in the Appalachian Mountains. Home movies from the time and Smith's interview subjects describe the evolution of Stanley's distinctive "high lonesome" style and the origins of his "claw hammer" picking technique, and paint Stanley as a confident musical genius and perceptive tour manager.

With little personal identification provided, it's sometimes hard to know who's talking and why their opinions matter. That might be the result of Smith's familiarity with the people on camera. He is a founding member of Appalshop, a Kentucky media collective that promotes Appalachian arts through documentary films, theater, community radio, and releases on the June Appal Records label. Appalshop is based some 20 miles as the crow flies from Stanley's Clinch Mountain, Va., home.

"If you told me it would take five years to finish it, I probably wouldn't have started," said Smith in a recent phone interview. "It had to do with funding. We had to raise $5,000, shoot, raise more money and shoot some more. I had to nickel and dime it until I could finish the film."

Despite Stanley's previous collaborations with Appalshop through live radio broadcasts and festival performances, Smith said he learned much about him during the making of the movie.

"What surprised me most is how smart the guy is," he said. "Sometimes you think musicians are, well, you know, musicians -- they perform but aren't necessarily that bright. But Ralph is just really smart about the strategy of how to position everything and keep a band together for so long."

Appalshop members Tom Hansell and Maureen Mullinax will answer questions at the screening. The Film Kitchen program includes 1991's "Fast Food Women," Anne Lewis Johnston's half-hour video about service workers, and "Woodrow Cornett: Letcher County Butcher," a 1971 short by Bill Richardson.

John Hayes can be reached at jhayes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1991.

Correction/Clarification: (Published Feb 11, 2003) Admission is $4 for tonight's screening of "The Ralph Stanley Story" at Pittsburgh Filmmakers' Melwood Screening Room in Oakland. A story in yesterday's editions gave an incorrect admission fee. Information: 412-681-5449.

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