McCLURE — Ralph Stanley would have been proud.
For the thousands of miles Stanley spent traveling the world to entertain fans of traditional music, he always returned home to the hills of Dickenson County.
On Tuesday, hundreds of fans turned out as Stanley made his final journey across the Hills of Home Bluegrass Park — the grounds where he and his family annually served their unique brand of music — to his final resting place.
Stanley, the Grammy Award-winning roots and bluegrass music pioneer, died Thursday at the age of 89 after a long battle with skin cancer.
Friends, neighbors and music fans jammed into the pavilion while hundreds more spilled out both sides or stood along the fences at the rustic home of Stanley’s long-running festival. They applauded as artists like Larry Sparks, Judy Marshall and Dan Marshall took “The Old Home Place Stage” to sing timeless Stanley Brothers classics and welcomed others, including Ricky Skaggs and Jim Lauderdale, who stood beside Stanley’s flag-draped casket and spoke eloquently of his impact.
All — young and old, famous or not — made the pilgrimage up Ralph Stanley Highway to Carter Stanley Highway to Smith Ridge to celebrate, remember and honor their friend, mentor and hero.
Many, like former Clinch Mountain Boys member Skaggs, spoke of salvation.
“None of us, in our fleshly bodies, wanted to see this day come,” Skaggs said. “But it’s appointed to every one of us; if there’s life, there’s death. Ralph is not dead. He is more alive today than he has ever been in his life. Who in our right mind and our right heart would want any less for him?”
During the memorial service, a procession of speakers lauded his love of Stanley’s family, fans and faith.
“Ralph touched and moved everybody who came here today,” Lauderdale said. “Everybody has their favorite stories and favorite songs and favorite shows and favorite memories. I guess the greater the man and the deeper the love, the deeper the sorrow.”
Lauderdale first recorded with Stanley in 1999 and produced a number of projects, including the Grammy Award-winning 2002 CD “Lost in the Lonesome Pines.”
“We are so blessed. It’s just amazing that he was with us as long as he was and gave us so much,” Lauderdale said. “I know a lot of you traveled a great distance to be here today — and some of you have never been here before. But once you’ve been here and walked on this land, you can understand Ralph a little better. When you look around at these beautiful hills and trees, you can hear him and understand where some of his music came from.”
Lauderdale and Buddy Miller produced Stanley’s final album, “Ralph Stanley and Friends: Man of Constant Sorrow,” which was released last year.
Other music industry luminaries who came to pay their respects included Patty Loveless, Vince Gill and Ronnie McCoury.
People began arriving hours before the ceremony, many traveling from Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. With the sun beating down, they politely walked past the casket, stopped to take photographs and looked at lavish floral arrangements sent by Skaggs and country music stars Alan Jackson, Dwight Yoakam and Sharon White, and from the Grand Ole Opry and Cracker Barrel restaurants.
There was a banjo covered with red roses, a guitar covered with yellow and red roses and a massive floral arrangement with blue ribbons inscribed in gold with “Long live the king of mountain music Ralph Stanley.”
Old friend and associate Melvin Goins was among the early arrivals.
“I worked with Carter and Ralph in 1966 and worked for four years. We were friends for all the years. I was the Stanley Brothers’ manager Jan. 18, 1966,” Goins said, adding they remained close. “Ralph was a lovely person. He loved the people and the people loved him. He played the kind of music he and his brother started that will live on and on.”
Ernie Thacker of Haysi was a member and lead singer of Stanley’s band for six years.
“He’s the voice of these mountains. He just had the soulful sound in his voice that nobody has and nobody else will ever have. You look at these mountains and you think of Ralph. He is the foundation of bluegrass music,” Thacker said.
He called Stanley his hero since he began playing music and said joining the Clinch Mountain Boys was a dream come true.
“I remember going to England to play a couple clubs and a festival. I thought they were going to turn the van over when we came through the crowd. We had to guard him to get him to stage. It was unreal how he was loved,” Thacker said.
Josh Trivett, Stanley’s final business manager, said it has been a difficult time.
“Besides my dad, Ralph was my greatest hero of all time,” Trivett said. “As a fan, it’s incredibly sad. But at least I have the three years we had together.”
Trivett said Stanley loved to perform.
“We might be having a day where he wasn’t feeling great, and then he would go out on stage and the lights would come on, and there was the figure that was bigger than life for two hours, and he would absolutely wear it out,” Trivett said.
He also recalled the day in 2014 when Yale University conferred a series of honorary doctorate degrees and Stanley received the loudest applause.
Earl Stevens traveled from Jackson, Kentucky, to pay his respects.
“I’m 73 and I’ve listened to him since I was old enough to turn a radio on. He’s the old school singing that good old gospel music, and Ralph has stayed the same all these years,” Stevens said.
Stanley gained new fans late in his life following the 2000 release of the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” which included his classic version of “Oh Death” that earned a Grammy Award.
“Ralph outlived his fans and then went out and made new ones,” friend and entertainer Tim White said.
Granddaughter Amber Stanley brought the crowd to tears, speaking about her grandfather and then reading a poem about his passing.
“I told him a few weeks before he died that I had always been his baby girl. He opened those beautiful blue eyes and said, ‘You still are, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Of course, Papaw, I’ll always be your baby girl.’ The moment that he left me, my heart broke in two,” she said.
Pastor Eva Murphy spoke glowingly of Stanley’s love for his family, the mountains and the fans. The ceremony’s most stirring moments came when longtime Stanley friend the Rev. Frank Newsome of Buchanan County spoke and then sang hymns in the traditional shape note style — his booming voice ringing off the pine trees.
“This is sad tonight,” Newsome said. “His memories will live on as long as I live and his children, his wife and all that knew brother Ralph Stanley.”