Final Notes, Dr. Ralph Stanley

Founding-generation bluegrass icon and old-time banjo player and singer Dr. Ralph Stanley died on June 23, 2016, in the mountains of Virginia, about 20 miles from where he was born. Following are several perspectives on Stanley and his legacy.

The bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley, who died Thursday evening, at the age of eighty-nine, leaves behind an enormously influential—and just plain enormous—body of work. As one half of the Stanley Brothers, a band on the short list of bluegrass originators, he recorded more than three hundred songs over two decades, ending in 1966. In the fifty years after that, working as a solo act in a style he was careful to identify not as bluegrass but as the old-time music that folks today call bluegrass, he recorded about a thousand more songs, spread across some seventy-five albums. That’s all good news.

The bad news is that, when it comes to Ralph Stanley’s voice, there has only ever been the one, and there will be no replacements.

-David Cantwell,
“Ralph Stanley’s Inimitable Voice,”
for the
New Yorker

One of the early leaders of bluegrass music, Ralph Stanley, has died at age 89. His death was announced by his grandson Nathan Stanley; Stanley’s publicist said in a statement that the cause was complications from skin cancer.
Ralph and his older brother Carter started out in the late 1940s as a duo.

After Carter died in 1966, Ralph continued with his band the Clinch Mountain Boys and built a fan base fiercely devoted to his straightforward banjo and archaic-type singing known as the “high lonesome” mountain sound.
Stanley’s sound came in part from the fact that he often sang in a minor key, while his band played in a happy-sounding major key.

John Wright, who wrote a book on Stanley called Traveling the High Way Home, says that tension between minor and major, plus what he called Stanley’s unearthly smokey vocal tone, “gives this old-time mysterious flavor to the singing. The voice sounds like it’s coming out of the past, like a ghost or something like that.”

Stanley himself told WHYY’s Fresh Air in 2002 that he was aware his voice was special, “a gift I think that God’s given me, and he means me to use that.”

Stanley recalled growing up poor on a farm in southwest Virginia, using a stick as a make-believe banjo.
He and his brother Carter started playing professionally on local radio in Bristol, Va., in 1946, calling their show Farm and Fun Time. Trying to compete against more mainstream country music and rock-and-roll, they moved toward a smoother duet style.

After Carter’s death, Ralph moved back to the traditional sound. He also drew on his childhood experiences in the Baptist Church and started presenting a capella solo and quartet religious songs on the bluegrass stage, something that wasn’t common before.

Ralph Stanley entered the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 1992, but his unearthly tenor catapulted him to much wider fame when, in 2000 at age 73, he was asked to sing the song “O, Death” for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou.
He told Fresh Air he was surprised by the reaction, but also gratified with the letters from people who said “that sound caused them to change their life, and I ... believe that gift was given to me for that purpose.”

-Paul Brown for
National Public Radio

It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the passing on Thursday of legendary bluegrass musician Dr. Ralph Stanley, recipient of a 1984 NEA National Heritage Fellowship and a 2004 National Medal of Arts. Stanley was born February 25, 1927, near McClure, Virginia, in the Clinch Mountains. He and his older brother Carter learned ballad singing and claw-hammer-style banjo playing from their mother. Her repertoire ranged from traditional narrative songs to nineteenth-century hymns sung a cappella, which the Stanley Brothers incorporated into their sets when they began playing professionally.

The brothers began performing with Roy Sykes and the Blue Ridge Mountain Boys in 1946, but soon formed their own band, the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys. They quickly gained a following due to their broadcasts on WCYB in Bristol, Virginia, which reached a five-state area: Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. From 1947 to 1958, the Stanley Brothers recorded with Rich-R-Tone, Columbia, and Mercury record labels, where they defined their signature sound, which revolved around Ralph’s mournful vocals and three-finger banjo playing and Carter’s masterful lead singing.

In 1966, Carter died, and after much consideration, Ralph continued his musical career and formed a new band. Many contemporary bluegrass artists have come up through the Clinch Mountain Boys band, including Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Larry Sparks and Charlie Sizemore. In 2000, his career skyrocketed after his music was used in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? (from which his chilling recording of “O Death” won a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance), and in 2002, his band the Clinch Mountain Boys received the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album for Lost In The Lonesome Pines.

Although Stanley has played primarily a traditional repertoire, he has also written his own songs. “It’s something that comes to you. I might write one tonight and I might not write another one for three years. It just hits you, comes on your mind. I’ve got up at three or four o’clock in the morning, wrote a song or two, maybe wrote three before I went back to bed. If I didn’t get up and write them down, I wouldn’t have remembered them the next day. One of them was ‘Prayer of a Truck Driver’s Son.’ They were gospel songs. One of them was ‘I Want to Be Ready.’ There’s been so many in so many years. It’s hard to remember.”

In addition to his NEA National Heritage Award and National Medal of Arts, Stanley also was a member of the Grand Ole Opry and the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and named a Library of Congress Living Legend and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

-National Endowment for the Arts


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