Banjo player and vocalist Ralph Stanley was a master of what he described as the “old-time mountain style” found in the ridges and valleys of his home on the Virginia-Kentucky border. His high clarion tenor was iconic in traditional mountain music and modern bluegrass alike. He died at his home in Sandy Ridge, Virginia on Thursday at the age of 89.
Stanley was born in Dickenson County, located in Southwest Virginia, on February 25, 1927, absorbing the sentimental folk songs of the Carter Family right along with the doleful hymns of the Primitive Baptist Universalist congregation he grew up with. After receiving his first banjo as a teenager, his mother taught him the claw-hammer style she had learned in her youth. By the age of 19, Stanley had formed the Clinch Mountain Boys with his brother, Carter, which remained active for two decades.
During that time, the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys found success arranging blues, ballads, hymns and breakdowns to feature their fraternally tight vocal harmonies and expressive musicianship in a style that, while often associated with bluegrass, featured little of the bombastic virtuosity and jazz-inflected melodies of popular bluegrass groups like Flatt and Scruggs or Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys.
On November 8, 1958, nearing the height of their popularity, the Stanley Brothers headlined the Suwannee River Jamboree, a weekly radio program in Live Oak, Florida. Their performance of Stanley’s original composition “Gonna Paint the Town” from a half-hour segment of the program syndicated to nearby radio stations can be found in the Florida Folklife Collection (S1576, T85-66):
After his brother’s death in 1966, Stanley began to focus more on the traditional ballads of his Appalachian home, shying further away from any bluegrass leanings his brother had. His contributions to country music were recognized over the course of his career with inductions into both the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor and the Grand Ole Opry, an honorary Doctorate of Music from Lincoln Memorial University, Congressional recognition in the form of the Living Legend Award and a National Medal of Arts, as well as a Grammy Award for his performance of “O Death” in the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?
“Dr. Ralph,” as he was known in his later years, never wavered in his commitment to the penetrating and powerfully unpretentious roots of old-time mountain music, thus insuring his place in the pantheon of American roots music.