Ralph Stanley & Béla Fleck: Pickers’ Licks

 Ralph Stanley & Béla Fleck: Pickers' Licks


Ralph Stanley was born in 1927, in Big Spraddle Creek, deep in the Clinch Mountains of southwestern Virginia. His mother provided initial instruction that would evolve into his distinctive claw-hammer style of playing banjo. Along with his older brother Carter on guitar, he began performing at local events when he was only 15. Their music was much influenced by the harmonies of the nearby Carter Family as well as the hymns from their local Baptist church. By 1946, they were performing as the Stanley Brothers and Clinch Mountain Boys on WCYB radio in Bristol, VA. In 1966, when Carter died at 41, Ralph considered giving up music but instead continued with Larry Sparks singing lead, along with his own amazing tenor. Other band members Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley went on to major careers of their own.

Stanley, who has been widely recognized for his musical accomplishments, was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2000. President Reagan presented him with a National Endowment for the Arts award in 1976 as did President George W. Bush in 2006. Other acknowledgements include a proclamation from Virginia Governor Mark Warner in 2005 and the Library of Congress “Living Legend” Medal in 2000. He has won many music industry awards, but the award he is most proud of is the Grammy’s 2002 Best Male Country Vocal Performance for “O Death,” considering the other nominees included Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Tim McGraw, and Ryan Adams.

At 80, after 170 albums during a 60+ year career that includes appearances on all the major TV networks as well as performances for Queen Elizabeth and two Presidential Inaugurations—Carter and Clinton—this iconic patriarch of bluegrass’ “high lonesome sound” plays 150 road gigs per year.


Named after Hungarian composer Béla Bartok, Béla (pronounced Bayla) Fleck was born in New York City on July 10, 1958. He played guitar at an early age but became fascinated with the sound of banjo. His grandfather bought him one, but he realized that his NYC High School of Music and Art could not provide banjo instruction, so he sought help elsewhere. A stranger on the subway taught Fleck how to tune the instrument and recommended a Pete Seeger instruction book. The learning process would ultimately lead to Tony Trischka, the highlyregarded banjo innovator and teacher of progressive bluegrass.

After high school, Fleck moved to Boston to play in Tasty Licks, and a year later he and bassist Mark Schatz relocated to Kentucky, formed the band Spectrum and recorded his 1979 album of progressive bluegrass Crossing the Tracks. In 1981, he joined Sam Bush’s new age bluegrass group New Grass Revival, where Fleck remained for the next nine years, during which he recorded a Grammy-nominated solo album, Drive, and also experimented with different musical configurations with banjo, vibes, electric bass and drums in a group called Banjo Jazz.

In 1988, a PBS producer offered Fleck a solo segment in the Lonesome Pine Road series; Fleck recruited bassist Victor Wooten, harmonica player Howard Levy and Wooten’s brother Roy (now known as Futureman), to play his “Drumitar” which incorporates elements of both drums and guitar; Béla Fleck & the Flecktones was born. Levy left the group after a few years, eventually replaced by saxophonist Jeff Coffin. After 40 albums, eight Grammys and 20 nominations in more categories than anyone in the history of the award, Fleck continues to collaborate with diverse musicians, including Bonnie Raitt, Sting, Dave Matthews Band, Amy Grant, Bobby McFerrin, the Chieftains, Branford Marsalis, Bruce Hornsby and many others.

Fleck sees the banjo’s association with southern white music as ironic, since the instrument originally came from Africa; that seems to inspire his exploration of its boundaries. After hearing “Earth Jam” from the Outbound album or Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” from the Perpetual Motion album of classical music, or “Spectacle” from his recent album with Chick Corea, The Enchantment, it may become impossible to only associate banjo with bluegrass.

Fleck completed a tour with Chick Corea in June and shortly thereafter began a Flecktones nationwide tour that will conclude in Los Angeles on October 10. E


Elmore: What are you listening to right now?

Ralph Stanley: Well I mostly listen to mine or the Stanley Brothers.

Béla Fleck: Let me look at my iTunes. An early album by Ricky Skaggs & Tony Rice—Skaggs & Rice. A band called Alash—they’re from Tuva, a throat singing group. This Beatles’ thing they did for Cirque du Soleil called Love, and Ray LaMontagne.

EM: What was the first record you ever bought?

RS: Well it’s been too long ago to remember really but it was probably something by the Carter Family or the Mainer’s Mountaineers. They were 40 or 50 miles away.

BF: A Beatles single with “She’s A Woman” on the one side. I don’t remember what was on the other side; one of those 45s that had a yellow and orange centerpiece.

EM: Where do you buy your music?

RS: I don’t buy any music since I listen mostly to mine or the Stanley Brothers. I listen very seldom to anybody else.

BF: I used to love to go to Tower here in Nashville, and Virgin. It’s nice to go to a big store, and now of course Barnes & Noble is turning out to be good. But now a lot of iTunes. If I need to learn a piece of music, I’ll just—Bam!—get on iTunes, download it and —Boom—I’m done. But with new records, they’re not always on there or it’s tricky to find them. The impulse buy is back in full swing.

EM: What was the first instrument you played?

RS: Five string banjo

BF: I started out on guitar. When I went to high school they tried to put me on French horn but it didn’t take—I could not even make the first sound out of it and they did not take the time to show me so I just gave up on it.

EM: What brought you to the instrument you now play?

RS: Well I liked the sound of a banjo and it fit me better than anything else. My mother first showed me a tune when I was about 10 or 11 years.

BF: The first thing that I remembered that had a banjo on it was the Flatt & Scruggs theme song to Beverly Hillbillies which was probably the awakening moment. Actually I did not get my first banjo until “Dueling Banjos” had been out for a year which reawakened the memory of banjo for me.

EM: What musician influenced you most?

RS: I was sorta partial to Bill Monroe and of course Earl Scruggs’ banjo playing is better than anybody. They were playing at WCYB in Bristol when I was playing there.

BF: First of all Earl Scruggs; second of all, Tony Trischka; and third of all, Chick Corea. I’m leaving today to go on tour with him as a duet.

EM: What was the song or event that made you realize you wanted to be in music?

RS: It could have been hearing either “Pretty Polly” or “Man Of Constant Sorrow” for the first time.

BF: There have been a few—it goes back to hearing that “Ballad of Jed Clampett” played by Earl Scruggs. I didn’t know what it was, but it was like lighting a fuse. I also remember hearing the “Dueling Banjos” and the flame getting a lot hotter. I also remember hearing Chick Corea play “Spain” in my Dad’s (music) appreciation class and a whole different fuse got lit. It took a long long time for it to explode which is the jazz side that I really wanted to get into. I didn’t have the tools back then but I was so excited by that song and by that way of playing that I said “I’ve got to do this on the banjo.” So it’s now starting to realize itself after all the years of doing it.

EM: Who would you like in your rock and roll heaven band?

RS: The first one would be my brother Carter of course. Then Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs were good when they played with me. Also Roy Lee Centers and Charlie Sizemore.

BF: The interesting thing about this question is a lot of people I love to listen to are not the ones I’d be right to play with. In the bluegrass scene the guys I want to play with are the guys I do play with, like Tony Rice on guitar, Sam Bush on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and Mark Schatz on bass. Those are the guys I would most want to play with, and those are the guys I do play with. That is my favorite bluegrass group right there because they are all modern players and yet they have their rudiments—they’re sorta the stars of that world. In the jazz world playing with Chick has always been my fondest hope, and here I am playing with him. But when you go back and think about Bach or Mozart—I wouldn’t necessarily want to play together, but to just be in the room with them and see them do their thing.

EM: What’s your desert island CD?

RS: That is a hard one because there are too many of them good. I just don’t know what I’d pick, but it would be Stanley music.

BF: Joni Mitchell’s Blue and/or Court and Spark, Abbey Road or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Chick Corea’s My Spanish Heart (because it is long!); Manzanita by Tony Rice and all those guys. Maybe some Coltrane stuff like A Love Supreme, Andy Statman’s Flatbush Waltz.

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