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Bluefield by Ralph Stanley II

Donald Teplyske  |  May 21, 2012

As I've written before, I've become a little bored listening to "Bluegrass Junction" on Sirius/XM. Mainly the problem is mine as I've been more interested in other music of late, but I maintain my love for and interest in bluegrass. I find on "Bluegrass Junction," the playlist is just a little narrow for my tastes: too much Lonesome River Band and Carrie Hassler, not enough Earl Brothers or James Reams, for example.

But, over the last few weeks I've caught them playing Ralph Stanley II's Bluefield, a song from his "Born to Be A Drifter" album. Over the years, I've truly never given more than a passing listen to Ralph Stanley's son although I've purchased a couple of his albums. Again, that has more to do with me and my listening choices.

Beyond the sound, beyond the harmonies and instrumentation, one of the things that first attracted me to bluegrass was the threads one could follow through the music and its history. I recall researching Tom Dooley and Tom Dula when I first came to the fold, especially interested once I found that there was a slim connection to the happenings through Doc Watson's family. Ditto songs like Barbara Allen and The Murder of the Lawson Family. I have been intrigued by writings such as those collected in "The Rose and the Briar, a book edited by Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus, and the novels of Sharyn McCrumb and others who use songs as a basis for their stories.

Bluefield is the latest song to capture my attention and lead me on this kind of journey. Listening to Ralph Stanley's Bluefield I was attracted not only to the impressive vocal performance, but to the story of the deputy who inadvertently but carelessly murders his sheriff in the woods outside Bluefield.

That led me to search out other versions of the song and the songwriter. I had no idea if Bluefield was a new song or something from long ago. It has the same feel as Long Black Veil in that is sounds like it could be a hundred years old. Through the wonders of the googlenet, I found out several things about Bluefield.

Initially, while searching iTunes and eMusic for II's version of the song, I came across a song called The Bluefield Murder by Roy Harvey, a pre-Depression musician who recorded with Charlie Poole as a member of the North Carolina Ramblers. As they share a similar loping rhythm, for a few moments, while listening to the audio snippets, I thought I had found the origins of the Bluefield I was searching for. However, it soon became apparent that this was a song from a different dusty road. A standard murder ballad- the "wild and reckless" narrator "shoots the poor girl down" for some undefined reason- I realized I already had this song on the shelf within a discount collection called "American Murder Ballads."

Next, I found a reference to Stonewall Jackson and his song Bluefield; now, I was getting somewhere. Unavailable for digital download, I found a YouTube clip of the song and indeed it was the right song. It appeared on Jackson's "Real Thing" album from 1970. What is more than a little serendipitous about this discovery was that only a couple weeks ago I had downloaded a pair of Jackson compilations from iTunes. I had been inspired by my re-listening of James Reams and Walter Hensley's "Wild Card" which had included a rendition of Jackson's We're the Kind of People (That Make the Jukebox Play), and discovered that the more I heard of Jackson's music and his back story, the more interested I became in his brand of outlaw country.

After listening to the Jackson version online a couple times, I went searching for additional versions of the song. I discovered an album by the Connor Brothers- who I know little about beyond they came from Floyd County, Virginia- that contained a rendition of the song. I also discovered that I must have heard Bluefield before as I have it on a "Prime Cuts of Bluegrass" sampler performed by Maryland-based Jay Armsworthy; maybe that is why Ralph II's song captured my attention- somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind, a connection was made.

I also found an album I didn't have by Lonesome Standard Time that included Blue Field; without thinking things through, I downloaded it from iTunes only to discover that their Blue Field is an instrumental of entirely different origin.

I guess what I'm trying to express is that bluegrass music has an appeal about it that is very individual. One is never sure what is going to connect, what is going to inspire additional thought and research. Two weeks ago I had never consciously heard the word 'bluefield,' never knew it was a town in West Virginia, had never registered hearing of the moonshiner song which bears its name, had never given thought to a fellow named Walter Summer who killed Ethel Sutherland, and had certainly not planned on spending money on "Born to Be A Drifter."

This is what I now know: bluegrass bands would be well advised to continue exploiting the catalogue of Stonewall Jackson- there are more of his songs waiting for the addition of a 5-string.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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