Bluegrass singer and legend, Ralph Stanley, died peacefully in his sleep on Thursday at 89 years old, after a long battle with skin cancer. Stanley is credited with being the patriarch of Bluegrass for boosting the genre throughout his musical career which spanned seven decades.
Ralph Stanley was born in Big Spaddle, Virginia, and was raised there in Southwest Virginia with his brother and first music partner, Carter. The Stanley Brothers were heavily influenced by their parents, who first introduced them to traditional songs. Their mother, Lucy Ann Smith, would play on the banjo, while Lee Stanley sang classic songs to the boys like “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
In 1946 they formed their band, the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, with Carter on guitar and lead vocals, Ralph on banjo and vocals, adding an element of deep tenor, Pee Wee Lambert on mandolin, and Bobby Summer on fiddle. While this is not the first band that the brothers formed, it is the Clinch Mountain Boys that would become a lifelong affair for Ralph.
Besides the influence from their parents, which not only taught the brothers tradition, but old-time clawhammer style where the fingers slap down the strings in a rhythmic style, the boys were influenced by listening to the Grand Ole Opry radio station. They especially found inspiration from star Bill Monroe, and were considered one of the first bands to copy the “Monroe Sound,” or “Nashville Sound,” which comprised of less ragged rhythm and more melodic vocals and smooth strings.
Right before Carter’s death in 1966 from a battle with liver disease, the group found themselves amid the budding folk movement, and toured the country hitting Bluegrass festivals. After the loss of his brother, sources say Ralph was not sure he would continue his music career, because Carter was always the front-man of the group, the lead singer, and Ralph was accustomed to being behind his brother.
However, in an interview that Ralph gave for the Associated Press in 2006, he said that ultimately, he decided to continue with music after an out pour of calls, telegrams and letters that urged him not to quit. In 1967, he reformed the Clinch Mountain Boys to include icons Ray Cline, or “Curly Ray,” Larry Sparks and Melvin Goin.
Curly Ray was a Bluegrass fiddler, who like Ralph, was very influenced by listening to the Grand Ole Opry, and would go on to appear on every succeeding Clinch Mountain Boys record until he retired in 1993. Ralph was quoted at Cline’s funeral saying, “He plays the fiddle sort of the way I play the banjo; he plays it the way he feels it.” Larry Sparks played the guitar and did vocals, recording songs like “I Only Exist,” during his time with the band, which was only two years. Bassist Melvin Goins has said in an interview that Ralph Stanley called him up for two weeks of work, but he ended up staying to play alongside Ralph for four years.
The Clinch Mountain Boys at this point adapted much deeper Appalachian roots. The lineup would later change quite a bit, and at times featured artists like Jack Cooke, Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs.
In 1992, Ralph Stanley was added to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, and he became a member of Opry in 2000, which was the start of a slew of recognition for him. His fan-base was fierce in their love of his unique voice, which stands out because it is in minor key against the happier major keys of his colleagues, and later coined as “high lonesome” mountain sound.
Stanley acquired a whole new fanbase after the debut of the chilling “O Death” on the “O, Brother Where Art Thou?” movie soundtrack album. The album, produced by T. Bone Burnett, would go on to win a Grammy Award for being Album of the Year; and in 2002 Ralph would go on to win a Grammy Award for Best Male Voice, beating out other big names like Tim McGraw.
Stanley also won another Grammy Award in 2002 for his collaboration with Jim Lauderdale on the album Lost in the Lonesome Pines. Dr. Ralph Stanley received an honorary Doctorate of Music from Lincoln Memorial University in Tenn., in 1976. He then went on to perform at the inaugurations of former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Additionally, he was awarded the coveted “Living Legends” award by The National Endowment for the Arts and President George W. Bush.
This past year, the Ralph Stanley festival celebrated its 46th anniversary. Despite his age and his battle with health, Stanley continued to tour and record well into his 80s, performing with his son, Ralph Stanley II and grandson Nathan.
In an interview for the AP, Stanley said that he liked seeing younger people at his shows, and that he enjoyed the belated recognition, but he said, “I wish it had come 25 years sooner” so that he could have enjoyed it longer.
Dr. Ralph Stanley is survived by his wife, Jimmie Stanley, of 47 years; they would have celebrated their 48th anniversary on July 2. He is also survived by his children: Lisa Stanley Marshall, Tonya Armes Stanley and Ralph Stanley II; His grandchildren: Nathan Stanley, Amber Meade Stanley, Evan Stout, Ashley Marshall, Alexis Marshall, Taylor Stanley, and Ralph Stanley III; and great grandchild Mckenzie Stanley. Memorial service details are yet to be announced.