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Dr. Ralph Stanley at the annual bluegrass festival of Jerusalem Ridge © Susana Raab/the New York Times/Redux

Issue 119, Winter 2022

Dr. Ralph Stanley Live at the Carter Family Fold

We came to hear “O Death,” humming to ourselves,

O Death, O Death—
won’t you spare me over ’til another year,

but sat through him selling books and telling stories.
He said no one could keep him from going by
“Dr.” just because it was honorary—
nothing honorary about (and I’m paraphrasing)
a bunch of Lomax-loving poindexters
who tell him it’s charming to learn what’s what
with his own hands. That, in short, he’s earned it.
He’s Dr. Ralph Stanley. Then he sang a song about trains.

What is this that I can’t see
with ice-cold hands taking hold of me?

Then another. He reminded everyone O Brother,
Where Art Thou? sold however much it takes
to go multi-platinum. He sang “Angel Band”
and “Man of Constant Sorrow” then he picked up
his banjo. I went down to the dance floor,
but my feet don’t move quick enough to flatfoot,
so I shuffled and laughed and stood out of place.
I’m sure I seemed like an asshole. Probably was.

I am Death, none can excel.
I’ll open the door to heaven or hell.

Dr. Ralph Stanley glowed under the brim
of his white Stetson, under the hot lights
of that stage, then he talked about family—
how everyone thought his brother would be
the one to make it big, that his brother
had the voice and vision and whatever it is
that makes a man enchanting to another man.
But look at them now.

The children prayed, the preacher preached,
time and mercy are out of your reach.

His brother’s been buried forty years,
succumbed to alcohol. Ralph’s a doctor.
Sold millions. Was on the TV. No one
thought he could but he could. Look at him.
Platinum and playing the Carter Fold.
Do you remember him damning his brother
and selling books? I’m texting a friend
a decade later. She says it didn’t happen.

I’ll fix your feet ’til you can’t walk.
I’ll lock your jaw ’til you can’t talk.

She says I’m wrong. Probably am.
But I remember the silence when he stopped
and set that banjo down. The adagio clack
of the dancers’ soda-can shoe taps gave way
to stillness. This was after the Fold
walled off the grassy hill you could spread
a blanket on. This was after they replaced
all the school bus loveseats with stadium chairs.

I’ll close your eyes so you can’t see.
This very hour, come and go with me.

The armrests held me in place. I regretted coming.
I wondered why I was there. I never cared much
for old-time or bluegrass except to gatekeep—
making claims, telling my Austin friends
about authenticity, when all I really know
is that it sits in a corner booth in a meat-and-three
right outside Galax, grumbling about Tech’s run game
and a story they saw on Facebook.

Simply put, I’m ashamed. The music loves all the places
I wish I could. The backing bands always belong
to some dear place—the Clinch Mountain Boys,
the Reedy Creek Band—and I still want to be a boy
who belongs to some dear place. But I never was.
I don’t remember wanting my town until I lost my way
around it. But I remember Dr. Ralph Stanley
starting up “O Death.” He sang

I’m Death, come to take the soul,
leave the body and leave it cold

and he watched me for those lines.
I burned white under the lights and it felt
like he saw me, saw through me, and knew
I was a fraud. My friend is wrong. I’ll learn
the names of birds and native species of plants.
I’ll drive up to Galax. I’ll take the backroads.
I’ll remember the waitress’s name
and love whatever she brings.

Each time I remember Dr. Ralph Stanley,
his brother is deeper in the ground. No wealth, no ruin,
no silver, no gold. Nothing satisfies
but the soul. O Death—I’m scared to know you
before I know the truth. Does anyone
anymore know what’s true. Won’t you spare me
over ’til another year. Spare me over ’til another year.
Spare me.

Andrew Lee Butler

Andrew Lee Butler is a writer from Kingsport, Tennessee. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Tennessee, where he currently serves as editor-in-chief of Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts.