Bluegrass Music Patriarch Ralph
Stanley Dies At 89
February 25th, 1927 – June 23rd, 2016
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (June 23, 2016) – Ralph Stanley, a patriarch of
Appalachian music who with his brother Carter helped expand and
popularize the genre that became known as bluegrass, died Thursday from
difficulties with skin cancer. He was 89.
Stanley was born and raised in southwest Virginia, a land of coal mines
and deep forests where he and his brother formed the Stanley Brothers
and their Clinch Mountain Boys in 1946. Their father would sing them old
traditional songs like "Man of Constant Sorrow," while their mother, a
banjo player, taught them the old-time clawhammer style, in which the
player's fingers strike downward at the strings in a rhythmic style.
Heavily influenced by Grand Ole Opry star Bill Monroe, the brothers
fused Monroe's rapid rhythms with the mountain folk songs from groups
such as the Carter Family, who hailed from this same rocky corner of
The Stanleys created a distinctive three-part harmony that combined the
lead vocal of Carter with Ralph's tenor and an even higher part sung by
bandmate Pee Wee Lambert. Carter's romantic songwriting professed a deep
passion for the rural landscape, but also reflected on lonesomeness and
Songs like "The Lonesome River," uses the imagery of the water to evoke
the loss of a lover, and "White Dove," describes the mourning and
suffering after the death of a mother and father. In 1951, they
popularized "Man of Constant Sorrow," which was also later recorded by
Bob Dylan in the '60s.
The brothers were swept into the burgeoning folk movement and they
toured the country playing folk and bluegrass festivals during the '60s,
including the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 and 1964.
But when Carter died of liver disease in 1966, Ralph wasn't sure he
could continue. His brother had been the main songwriter, lead singer
and front man, and Ralph, by his own account, was withdrawn and shy,
although he had overcome some of his early reticence.
"Within weeks of his passing, I got phone calls and letters and
telegrams and they all said don't quit. They said, 'We've always been
behind you and Carter, but now we'll be behind you even more because we
know you'll need us,'" Stanley told The Associated Press in 2006.
After Carter's death, Ralph drew even deeper from his Appalachian roots,
adopting the a cappella singing style of the Primitive Baptist church
where he was raised. He reformed the Clinch Mountain Boys band to
include Ray Cline, vocalist Larry Sparks and Melvin Goins. He would
change the lineup of the band over the years, later including Jack
Cooke, and mentored younger artists like Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs,
who also performed with him.
Dylan and Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia praised his work and, in the case
of Dylan, joined him for a remake of the Stanley Brothers' "Lonesome
River" in 1997.
He was given an honorary doctorate of music from Lincoln Memorial
University in Harrogate, Tennessee, in 1976, and he was often introduced
as "Dr. Ralph Stanley." He performed at the inaugurations of U.S.
Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, was given a "Living Legends"
medal from the Library of Congress and a National Medal of Arts
presented by the National Endowment for the Arts and President George W.
Bush. He became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 2000.
But at age 73, he was introduced to a new generation of fans in 2000 due
to his chilling a cappella dirge "O Death" from the hit Coen Brothers'
"O Brother, Where Art Thou?" movie soundtrack. The album was a runaway
hit, topping the Billboard 200 chart, as well as the country albums and
soundtrack charts, and sold millions of copies.
He won a Grammy for best male country vocal performance in 2002 —
beating out Tim McGraw, Ryan Adams, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Lyle
Lovett — and was the focus of a successful tour and documentary inspired
by the soundtrack. The soundtrack, produced by T Bone Burnett, also won
a Grammy for album of the year. The following year he and Jim Lauderdale
would win a Grammy for best bluegrass album for "Lost in the Lonesome
He said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2002 that younger
people were coming to see his shows and hear his "old time music," and
was enjoying the belated recognition.
"I wish it had come 25 years sooner," he said. "I am still enjoying it,
but I would have had longer to enjoy it."
Despite health problems, he continued to record and tour into his 80s,
often performing with his son Ralph Stanley II on guitar and his
grandson Nathan on mandolin.
Stanley was born in Big Spraddle, Virginia and lived in Sandy Ridge
outside of Coeburn, Virginia. His mother was Lucy Jane Smith Stanley and
his father was Lee Stanley. He is survived by his wife Jimmie Stanley –
they were to celebrate their 48th wedding anniversary on July 2nd. 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 pending and will be announced shortly.
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