The first time I ever sang in public was in a little country church way out in the sticks. It was a one-room building with plank benches and an old woodstove for heat. No special occasion, just another Sunday morning. You might think there wasn't much to be nervous about, but I was scared to death because my dad put me on the spot.
It was in 1935 at the Point Truth Primitive Baptist Church in Scott County, Virginia. You just about needed a search party to find it, tucked back in Long Hollow, miles from the nearest town of Nickelsville. In our type of church, the Primitive Baptists, they don't allow musical instruments whatsoever, not a piano or even a tambourine. They sing the old Baptist hymns the old-time way, a cappella-style, just the voices alone.
You may have seen in the Bible where it says "make a joyful noise unto the Lord," and that's what a lot of Pentecostals and Holiness churches do around these mountains, and they play guitars and anything else handy and they get pretty rowdy. It's got a good beat to it, it makes you happy, and it makes you want to move.
But the Primitive Baptists are different. They're strictly business when it comes to their hymns. It's more sad and it's more mournful and it fits my voice like nothing else. Usually the preacher or one of the elders will line out the songs for the congregation, which means the leader sings a verse and everybody joins in and sings it right back.
On this Sunday morning, my family was sitting all bunched together on the pew-bench like usual: my dad, Lee, and my mother, Lucy, and my older brother Carter, and me. There was a song my dad wanted to lead on. It was from the old Goble hymnbook: "Salvation, O! The Name I Love." It was one of his favorites, but he never could remember how the song started out. So he laid his hand on my shoulder and he called on me to start the song, to line it out for the congregation.
Here we were, the church-house packed and everybody waiting on me. I couldn't even look up I was so scared, just a-trembling from head to toe. I like to stare a hole in the floor and crawl inside and hide. These people were friendly enough, but this was a new church from the one I was used to, the McClure Primitive Baptist Church, close by the hollow I was from back in Dickenson County. We'd moved for a while to the neighboring county, where we lived in an old log house in Long Hollow while my dad worked a sawmill job in the area.
.....Scared as I was, I knew how the song went and that was what probably saved me. The melody stuck with me from the first time I'd heard it. I was always taken by the sad old Baptist hymns we sang at our home church down by the river in McClure. I can remember singing those hymns to myself around the house when I was four or five years old. I don't know why. I just had a feeling for those songs and I still do today. So I took a deep breath and sung out the opening line the best I could:
Salvation, O! The name I love, which came by Christ the Lord above
The words come out of me and hung in the air and then faded to nothing. The silence was only for a second, but it seemed to last forever. I thought maybe I'd messed up somehow and failed my dad. Then the whole congregation joined in and sang the verse back, tracing the melody just the way I done it, and the church filled up with one big voice. I could feel my heart swell up like to burst. It was a feeling I never had before, and I jumped on the next verse before the feeling got away.
Surprising wisdom, matchless grace which regarded my low and helpless case
Just like before, everyone sang back that mournful melody in a booming voice so strong the walls of the little building like to shake down to the ground. I was too young to know what all the words really meant, but I can tell you now the hymn told my story, plain and simple. I looked up at my dad and his face was a-beaming. He finished out the hymn, and I stood there in wonder, listening to the song I had started all by myself.
Below are the lyrics to the hymn mentioned above by Stanley as well as an audio recording of the song being lined out by an anonymous congregation. There seems to be a slight variation between the words as retold by Stanley and those lyrics recorded in the Smithsonian Folkways link cited at the end of this hymn. The slight variation is between the words "regarded" by Stanley and "reached" in the lyrics provided. The difference can be explained either by an error of memory on the part of Stanley or, what I believe to be a more reasonable explanation, simply different lyrics used by the Primitive Baptists as opposed to the Old Regular Baptists. The Smithsonian Folkways link is an account from the Old Regular Baptists.
Salvation oh the name I love
Which came by Christ the Lord above
Surprising wisdom, matchless grace
Which reached my low and helpless case.
When I was sinking in despair,
Filled with an awful gloomy fear;
My Savior came to my relief,
He eased my pain and bore my grief.
I immediately was made whole,
I felt the witness in my soul;
My burdens went I knew not where,
And gone was all my guilt and fear. 
 Dr. Ralph Stanley with Eddie Dean, Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times (New York: Gotham Books, 2009), 32.
 Ibid., 3-6.