There were numerous turning points in the presidential campaign that ultimately led to Obama’s victory, starting with David Geffen’s startling support of him over Clinton, then Caroline Kennedy’s unforeseen coming out in Obama’s favor closely followed by that of her Uncle Teddy.
But these, of course, are liberals. Children and grandchildren of conservative icons like Eisenhower, Goldwater and Nixon also endorsed outright or were reported to have sided with Obama (even Jenna Bush suggested as much when she declined to commit to McCain’s campaign to succeed her father). Then there were significant Republican voices including Christopher Buckley and most notably Colin Powell who with great fanfare crossed party sides.
No one, though, caught my attention more than Dr. Ralph Stanley, the bluegrass pioneer (and holder of an honorary Doctorate of Music from Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee), who shocked some—myself included—with his endorsement of Obama last fall followed by an Obama radio spot in the Southwestern part of his home state of Virginia. After all, Ralph epitomizes one of the whitest strains of country music: “Stanley is a legend particularly among the kind of voters—rural, white, lower-income—that populate that region of the state and that Obama has had difficulties winning over in his campaign,” noted the Wall Street Journal. His singing voice, in fact, was unforgettably employed in a Grammy-winning performance of the Appalachian dirge “O Death,” which was hilariously used as an anthem at a Klan rally in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Then again, what do I know?
“Well, I’ve been a Democrat all my life,” he explained to me in his B.B. King’s dressing room before his Wednesday night show with his Clinch Mountain Boys. “I met Obama when he appeared in Lebanon not too far from where I live. I met him and talked to him and he seemed nice and down-to-earth and I liked him. He asked me to help him out, so I did my best.”
It didn’t hurt that Obama was a Ralph Stanley fan.
“He said, ‘I got you on my iPod,” Ralph continued, “and he mentioned before several hundred people that I was in the crowd that day, and I appreciated him calling my name out.”
Ralph doesn’t know which of his tunes Obama downloaded. But he was pleased that the then-nominee asked for a photo with Ralph, his son and grandson—“three generations of Stanleys.”
As the Roanoke Times noted in 2005, “Ralph Stanley has long been a legend in these parts. In the last five years, though, he has become something more than that; he has come to symbolize the timelessness and durability of this old music and this region.”
Indeed, Ralph’s radio spot for Obama played up his local credentials. “Howdy, friends,” it began. “This is Ralph Stanley, and I think I know a little something about the families around here. Barack’ll cut taxes for everyday folks–not big business–so you’ll have a little more money in your pocket at the end of the year. I also know Barack is a good man. A father and devoted husband, he values personal responsibility and family first.”
Back in the dressing room, Ralph said this was his first such involvement in a presidential campaign (“I don’t know that it was anything I did, but it was the first time a Democrat carried Virginia, I believe, since Johnson in ‘64”), and conceded that he was “criticized some” from Republican friends, “but I know I was complimented more than criticized.” None of the criticism, he noted, had anything to do with race.
“You see, I have very many Republican friends as I do Democrat friends, and I don’t want to offend them,” he added. “I want to keep them as my friends. But like I say, I’m a Democrat and believe in their principles and beliefs.”
He recalled receiving the National Medal of Arts in 2006–the nation’s highest honor for artistic excellence—from President Bush.
“I went to the White House and he and his wife treated me real good, and as a man I like him—but I don’t believe in his policies,” he said.
And then it was time for the 81-year-old doctor (he turns 82 next week) to take the stage, much as he has for the last 62 years. “I play a few days and then I’m back home a few days—back and forth,” he said.
Halfway during the show a fan shouted out, “Thank you for the endorsement!” Others applauded, but Ralph didn’t hear them clearly, though when they explained that they were saluting his Obama support, he quickly reiterated.
“I see,” he said. “I want to make it clear that I have as many Republican friends as Democrat….”
Yes, Ralph. But I want to make it clear that it takes a lot of guts to take a stand. Before your friends, before your country. I’ve always loved you as an artist, since I first saw you at the Great Hall of the University of Wisconsin Student Union in Madison, way, way back, when Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs were in the band. And now I love you as a citizen.