ABINGDON, Va. – It was a toe-tapping party at Heartwood: Southwest Virginia's Artisan Gateway as Southwest Virginia celebrated the 87th birthday of bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley.
Stanley, a Dickenson County, Va., native, took the stage briefly with son Ralph Stanley II during the special birthday concert, which also featured grandson Nathan Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys – the band started 68 years ago by Ralph Stanley and his brother Carter.
The packed-in crowd was also entertained by Jeff Brown & Still Lonesome, Clearwater Branch, and the Virginia Whirlwinds.
At one point, Ralph Stanley watched intently from the front row as 21-year-old Nathan – who remembers, as a child, watching in awe as his beloved papaw took the stage – played and sang in his honor.
"It's a blessing from God for him to be around for 87 years on this earth," Nathan Stanley said, reflecting on his grandfather's birthday and his family's music legacy. "He never changed his sound; he never went with the flow. He's always stayed true to himself."
In addition to a legendary night of music, Ralph Stanley's birthday party is a big annual fundraiser for the Ralph Stanley Museum, which over the years has drawn people from 51 countries and all 50 states to the tiny town of Clintwood to pay homage to a man credited with influencing not just bluegrass, but also country, gospel, rock & roll and pop music with his distinctive sound.
"He's truly an icon," said Nathan Stanley. "He's one of the most important figures in American music and always will be."
State Sen. Phillip Puckett, D-Lebanon, read from a Virginia General Assembly resolution commending Ralph Stanley for his remarkable career.
"I can't think of an individual who has been a better ambassador for Southwest Virginia," Puckett said, "and, for that matter, all of Virginia."
Ralph Stanley, who just released his latest album with his son, Ralph Stanley II, said he's glad the next generations are keeping the old musical traditions alive.
"That does me a lot of good," he said of seeing his son and grandson perform.
"They know the old-time way, the way it should be, and maybe they'll keep it going."
Though he recently announced his retirement, Ralph Stanley said he quickly took it back; even at 87, he said it would just be too hard to stop playing the music he loves. This year, he's touring with Nathan and the Clinch Mountain Boys.
"I don't do no hot stuff," he said. "I just like to listen to the banjo and the guitar and the mandolin and sing some good, old-time country songs."
Nathan Stanley said he feels honored for the opportunity to help carry forward his grandfather's legacy – and hopes Ralph Stanley will have many, many more birthdays to celebrate.
"I believe, instead of following in footsteps, you make your own footsteps," Nathan Stanley said, "but as long as I can sing, you'll hear the Stanley sound, and I'll pay tribute to him."