Trail Mix: Visiting the Ralph Stanley Museum

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After leaving Charlottesville in 2004 and moving to the mountains of Southwest Virginia, I taught in a school located just miles from hallowed ground in the bluegrass world.

Ralph Stanley, bluegrass icon and patriarch, was born and raised in Dickenson County. With his brother Carter, in The Stanley Brothers, and later with his own band, The Clinch Mountain Boys, Ralph forever altered the American songbook with his high lonesome take on old time and bluegrass music.

The year I began teaching outside of Clintwood, Virginia, the Ralph Stanley Museum opened its doors. With a calendar full of events and workshops, along with a stunning collection of artifacts and memorabilia, the museum is a hallmark on The Crooked Road, the musical road trip that winds through Virginia’s mountains and showcases traditional music, and it is a must see for fans of Ralph Stanley and bluegrass music. A mere $5.00 affords you entrance to the museum and,with rooms available to rent upstairs, you can even spend the night!

I recently got the chance to talk with Judy Steele and Vonda Shortridge about the museum, its importance to the town of Clintwood, and the legacy of the man it honors.

BRO – We are approaching the first anniversary of Ralph Stanley’s death. Pretty easy to say that the museum is now more important than ever?

JS – Absolutely, and his legacy in old time music will continue through the videos and the music that can be seen and heard in the museum. His fans knew he remained true to his roots and the museum will give generations to come a chance to visit a museum that highlights the old time music in its original form. Already, the museum has brought generations together, as older fans have passed their love of Ralph Stanley’s music down to their loved ones by listening to the music or going to concerts and festivals.

BRO – What does having a museum like this mean to a small town like Clintwood?

VS – For a small town, having a state of the art museum for visitors to tour, whether special plans were made to visit or the stop in our beautiful town was spur of the moment, is great. Everyone that enters the doors of the museum is immediately impressed by Dr. Stanley’s vast display of memorabilia, and being able to see his life portrait in videos and listening to his music on interactive screens brings his love of music to life. And the museum offers a walk through the history of Ralph Stanley’s music, along with the music he made with his brother, Carter, in The Stanley Brothers.

BRO – What is the one thing you recommend visitors to see when they are in the museum?

JS – As you enter the museum, one of the first rooms you see is the church room. In this room is an introduction video which begins with Ralph’s early life and ends with him sitting on the porch of the museum. This will set the tone for the rest of your tour.

BRO – When you think of Ralph Stanley, what’s the first song that comes to mind?

VS – For me, probably “O, Death” or “Man of Constant Sorrow,” but many of his fans ask for “Pretty Polly” or “Little Maggie.”

BRO – I am sure you have a way of noting from where your visitors have come. Any idea of the longest distance traveled by a museum patron to visit?

VS – Visitors have come from all over the United States, and from Australia, Canada, Japan, Ireland, England, South Africa, and New Zealand. So many of those fans have such interesting stories on how they became fans of both Ralph Stanley and bluegrass music.

Another visit to the Ralph Stanley Museum is definitely on my horizon. If you are interested in learning more about museum, its hours, events, and exhibitions, please visit the website and plan a trip there soon. And for more information on other adventures you can take around the mountains of Southwest Virginia, check out what our friends at The Heart of Appalachia have to offer.


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