Monday, April 5, 2010

Hills of Home

Winter 1995, Tacoma Bluegrass Festival

Ralph Stanley is one of the legends of Appalachian banjo and singing. He was playing at a bluegrass festival one early winter, and after one of his concerts we saw him sitting out at the table where they were selling his CDs and merchandise. He had a bumper sticker saying Ralph Stanley for President which I bought and stuck on my guitar case. He had been selling the same bumper sticker for twenty years they told me later.

We got to talking with him and his son, a fine singer and guitar picker in his own right, performing with his daddy on the road since he was a boy. Ralph was in his late sixties, this was before his appearance in the Coen Brothers movie, when he sang Oh Death and won the grammy that year and started doing all those TV appearances.

He was only about five feet tall, coming from a long line of miners I guess. He didn’t say much, but he really radiated a peaceful and spiritual energy to all of us without even cracking a smile. Like a little Appalachian bodhisattva, we all thought he had the mountain inside him and every time he sang, the wind in the hollows blew up and through him.

Later in the festival I was talking to Peter Rowan, once with Jerry Garcia in Old and In the Way, still the highest selling bluegrass album of all time. We were talking about Ralph, and Peter told me he had been up to Ralph’s Hills of Home. Up on the hill you can hear the Stanley Brothers being played out of little speakers next to Ralph’s Brother Carter and their mother’s graves, 24 hours a day, leading them home. A little further up the hill, Peter told us, no music being piped out, but two more gravestones--father and son biker family who had loved Ralph for many years.

One day the Father overdosed on heroin and all his biker buddies, dragging the teenage son along, took him up to the Hills of Home on their choppers, propped him up against a tree next to Carter and his Mothers' graves and shot him full of holes with their various guns. They called for Ralph but Ralph was on tour in Belgium at the time. The bikers left the bullet-riddled corpse up against the tree, a note tacked to its chest with one final wish--that their friend be buried next to Carter and Mama Stanley at Hills of Home.

When Ralph got home he was told of the crazy incident and request by his family and the people who worked at the house. He just looked at everyone and said well if that old boy needs a way to find his way back home, then we ought to oblige him with a little resting place up here, but over yonder next to the hedge, not next to Mama and Carter.

Ten years later the son repeated the overdose at a much younger age than his Father had, and the bikers just made a quick call on their cellphones to make the immortal wish.