Blurred Time Continues
The War Pipes
A Trip with Ralph
In a Birmingham Diner
October-November, 1977. We got off the plane in LA. Somebody or other met us, and we followed him to a van, loaded in the instruments and bags, went over to the venue I think--McCabe's in Santa Monica--left the instruments there, did a sound check or something, got a bite to eat. I think Ralph Stanley's band was coming in at a different time, and the McCabe's folks went back to get them. These details are blurry. We played the gig, maybe did a workshop with Ralph about mountain music. The next morning it had snowed on the mountains that ring LA to the east, and it was crystal clear, and we watched the snow melt from Pasadena, where we were staying with Tom Sauber, and then the haze came in, the mountains disappeared, and we flew up to San Francisco to play the Great American Music Hall.
At the SF airport a barefooted guy named Kansas met us and led us to the van we were going to ride in up the coast to Seattle. Ralph took shotgun. Everyone in his band (that would be Keith Whitley, Jack Cooke, and Curly Ray Cline) called him "Sherm." He was certainly the General. At the Music Hall we split sets and did two shows, a complement to someone's drawing power. Between their sets Ralph and his bunch went next door to the Mitchell Brothers Theatre and staggered back to play with sweat showing through the backs of their suit jackets. "Ain't never seen sompin' like that," Curly Ray opined. Later on in the trip Penthouse or Playboy came out with an article on Ralph, and everyone passed the mag around backstage, whoopin' it up. This is why "someone" had drawing power maybe. We never got an article in such a magazine.
We went up the coast, spending the night in Arcadia, CA, in the redwoods, a marvelous cabin back in the woods that I have no idea how I could ever find again, probably some friend of Kansas's. I think we played in Arcadia, too. Then it was on to Oregon--Medford, Eugene, Corvallis, Portland. In Eugene Ralph's band played a joke on Curly Ray. Curly Ray was gregarious, and loved to say stuff like it was really him who carried the show. He got a small solo section in each show, and he also carried his own records and other paraphernalia, which he hawked constantly. In LA he had sold out of Curly Ray key rings and must have said about 20 times, to all assembled, "Boys, this here is key ring country!" Next morning he was calling home to Pike County to get a key ring drop set up somewhere up the road. I wish I had one of the things now; wonder if they're on ebay?
Anyway, in Eugene he did his solos--a funny song and a very fine old time fiddle tune--and then looked around for the boys to come back out. And they didn't. I was up in the balcony and could see Ralph, brown, shiny suit and Stetson, standing in the wings. Curly Ray finally played another tune. Still no band. He played on, told a story, sang another song. And eventually he just ran out. It started to hurt, just watching. Still no band. Finally they came out and finished the set. And Curly was a lot quieter for a while. This was an old story with the Clinch Mountain Boys. Keith told me that once he and Ricky Skaggs had held Curly Ray down on a motel bed and stuffed a whole loaf of white bread into his mouth. Rest his soul, and Keith's too.
The rest of the trip was basically gig after gig, and plenty of stories in the van from Sherm. I remember him talking some about how he and Carter would play drive-in movie theatres in the '50s. They'd get up on the little building that housed the projection booth and play until the movie started. Then people would honk and throw things. That's dues, and I don't begrudge the great good fortune that has come Dr. Ralph's way since the Cohen brothers and the movie Oh Brother. Even if it's truely weird and disrespectful to hear Ralph's great voice coming out of a klansman’s hood and singing "Oh Death." That's fucked up, but if it made Ralph some good jack, it's hard to really complain too much. It's kinda like how Willie Nelson is now touring around some with Jessica Simpson and hyping this remake of the Dukes of Hazzard. Sickening, but he does deserve to make the money.
After we got done with the Northwest we flew back into the winter of Calgary and then on down to Chicago, where we'd left our van. We drove to Springfield, Ill., where we met Ralph and the Boys one last time. Ralph's plane had hit weather, and it was rough enough to leave all of the boys shaken. I was glad to have missed that and sorry they didn't. We played the show, and they did the same exact set they'd done every show. Then we all said goodbye, and that was about another round except we had a couple more gigs on our own to do. Just outside of Springfield on the way back upstate, we spotted a friendly looking road house, and Jim and I got Jack to stop the van so we could go in and get a six to go. The place turned out to be full of the meanest looking rednecks I'd seen in a long time, and they didn't like our hair. We managed to get the beer and get out alive, but they seem to have elected their presidents pretty much ever since.
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