Every year just before Memorial Day, David Gartland and I hitch up the wagon and head down that Crooked Road through the Blue Ridge then up to Dr. Ralph Stanley’s place in the Clinch Mountains of Southwestern Virginia. The Hills of Home Festival is a gathering of the faithful right in the caldron of traditional American music. It was in this remote area that the sounds of Europe, Anatolia and Africa merged and boiled in a musical hot-pot. The musical stew that emerged from this pot was further influenced by the vocal traditions of the local churches where people found solace and community in the a cappella harmonies of traditional gospel music.
The “outside world” first discovered the richness of the music in 1927 when Ralph Peer from New York turned on his Victor Talking Machine in Bristol, Virginia and captured the haunting harmonies of the Carter Family. It was just the beginning. The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Jim and Jesse and The Virginia Boys, The Stanley Brothers and many others sprang to national prominence within a relatively short period of time. Recordings of that music made it way up to Northern Michigan and changed the course of my life quickly. Within a year or two I was a banjo player and of course at the same time a social pariah! I really had no idea how deeply the music had penetrated or that I was destined to start a musical instrument company.
After we designed and developed the Carter Stanley Memorial Guitar along with the Stanley Family it seemed that there was another opportunity to give something back to the music that has given so much to me. So, we have been at Ralph Stanley’s place every year for more than eight years now and have become an integral and maybe important part of the gathering. Each year we selectone of the original members Clinch Mountain Boys and present them with a Carter Stanley Blueridge Guitar. It has been especially gratifying when we have been able to honor members of this group who played with The Stanley Brothers before Carter Stanley’s untimely death in 1966. Among the honorees have been the late Jack Cooke, Larry Sparks, Melvin Goins, Rickie Lee, Les Woodie and Tom Morgan.
This year was especially meaningful. With the assistance of Melvin Goins and Paul Williams we were able to locate Big Jim Williams who played mandolin with the Stanley Brothers for six years in the early 1950s. If you saw “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?’? chances are you remember the closing credits. As the credits began to run people started to stand up in the theater, but then came the searing mandolin intro to Angel Band by the Stanley Brothers. In the theater that I was in everyone froze and dropped back in their seats. No one got back up until the credits and the song ended!
That mandolin break was played by Big Jim Williams on the legendary Stanley Brothers Mercury Sessions. Big Jim didn’t know if he could make it up to the Mountain this year. A cancer diagnosis and upcoming chemotherapy stood in the way. But finally, with his doctor’s approval and the best efforts of his wife Phyllis and his son Virgil, Big Jim piled into the back of a van and made the 650 mile trip from Florida to Virginia. Ralph Stanley presented Big Jim Williams with his Blueridge guitar and then it was Big Jim’s turn to electrify the crowd once again. Phyllis Williams grabbed the bass and slapped it like a newborn to drive the rhythm. Big Jim slung a Blueridge guitar over his shoulders and kicked off a rousing, powerful vocal rendition of The Eternal Life. It was a defining moment at this year’s gathering of the faithful!
If you are in Southwestern Virginia before Memorial Day weekend next year, come up to the Stanley Brother’s old home place. Dr. Ralph says he’s doing the festival again in 2013. He will be glad to see you and so will I!