Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Church in the Lonely Pines | Strict notice


My wife’s late mother, Margaret Whitt Freeman, grew up in rural southwest Virginia near the Clinch Mountains, where the air is crisp and the streams are clean.

Margaret was one of 11 children who farmed the mountainous land, which was difficult, but they persevered. The Whitts raised pigs, chickens, cattle and large gardens to help feed the family.

There were eight girls and three boys, so much of the heavy farming fell to the girls in the family. The tough and proud family worked hard and although there was a lot of love, life was unforgiving, especially during the Great Depression years when extreme poverty reigned.

Every Sunday, the Whitts hitched their horses to a wagon and rode through the high, isolated mountains to the Early Baptist Church in Little Flock. When the winds were blowing and the snow or rain was piling up, the preachers would come to the homes of the members to hold their services.

It was during this time that Margaret met Landon Colley and Junior Davis, some of the early Baptist preachers. Landon and Junior were good friends with Margaret’s brothers-in-law, Stewart Owens and Kermit Hinkle, who also became Early Baptist preachers.

There was another young man growing up in the area, but his path in life diverged from local Appalachian family life. This man, Dr. Ralph Stanley, would travel the world playing bluegrass music.

In February 1927 Ralph was born in McClure, Virginia, a logging and coal mining area in Big Spraddle Creek, just up the holler from where he moved and lived for the rest of his life in the Dickenson County. Margaret was born less than two months later, just across the mountain. Although Ralph and Margaret knew each other, in 1946 Ralph began touring with his brother, Carter and The Clinch Mountain Boys, and was rarely home.

A year ago, my wife, Brenda, and I were watching the television show American Pickers when Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz pulled their van into the barnyard of an Appalachian man, Hayder Kiser. Mike and Frank had stumbled upon Hayder’s hideout in Clinchco, Virginia, filled with a treasure trove of memorabilia that once belonged to Ralph Stanley.

Hayder, a gentle and kind man, impressed Mike and Frank with his humility and politeness. Brenda said he was typical of the Appalachian men she had known as a child.

Hayder lived near Ralph and they became good friends. After Hayder opened his own garbage service, he provided Ralph’s sanitation service for over 20 years.

As he got older, Ralph couldn’t store all of his memorabilia in his home, but wanted to make sure his collection was preserved for the younger generation of those living in Appalachia. One Saturday morning, Ralph drove his van to Haider’s house and gave him all of his old tapes, banjos, guitars, jackets, shoes, and letters.

Eager to protect this piece of bluegrass history, Mike and Frank purchased all of Ralph’s memorabilia from Hayder and donated them to the Ralph Stanley Museum in Dickenson County, Virginia in Hayder’s name.

Ralph’s musical career spanned 70 years. He performed for everyone from presidents to local farmers, singing about life, death and everything in between. Its simple, ancient and mournful music is the music of the early Baptist religion.

Later in life, Ralph Stanley admitted that his greatest achievement did not come on stage. It happened in a river in the mountains of southwestern Virginia.

That’s where they baptized Ralph Stanley.

The road had a way of keeping Ralph out of the church, but in the end, God got what he wanted.

Ralph remembers tossing and turning in his bed one night after a dream. “I dreamed one night that I was walking and met a preacher. He stooped down, shook my hand, and gave me a cold handshake. His name was Landon Colley. He had preached at the funeral of my mother and Carter’s funeral. It stuck with me, a vision, you know. I couldn’t sleep. It hit me so hard.

The very next day, Ralph and Margaret’s friends, preachers Landon Colley and Junior Davis, took Ralph to the mountain river, high in the lonely pines, baptized him in the name of Jesus, and shouted “Hallelujah” when his head sank, just as they had baptized Brenda’s mother many years before.

Ralph Edmund Stanley passed away peacefully on June 23, 2016, in the mountains of Virginia, with family and friends by his side.


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