Stanley, Ralph

Stanley, Ralph
▪ 2003

      Though bluegrass festivals seemed to sprout like mountain wildflowers across the United States, bluegrass music had never been one of the most popular country music idioms. It therefore came as a surprise to many when bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley beat out such country stars as Lyle Lovett, Tim McGraw, and Johnny Cash to capture the 2002 Grammy Award for best male country vocal performance. The vivid winning recording—the song “O Death,” an unaccompanied vocal in Stanley's high, wavery tenor voice—was a highlight of the sound-track album from the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? After six Grammy nominations, it was the first time that Stanley—at the age of 75—had won top honours.

      Ralph Edmond Stanley was born on Feb. 25, 1927, in Stratton, in the mountains of far southwestern Virginia. His mother taught him to play the banjo, and he and his guitar-playing older brother, Carter, became a singing team as teenagers. After service in World War II, the Stanley brothers began their career in earnest, forming the Clinch Mountain Boys, one of the first bands to play in the new bluegrass style. Their sound was distinctive—as the five-piece string band played, Carter sang lead, and Ralph sang tenor harmony. The two brothers both wrote songs, all in stark, ancient Appalachian mountain modes. For years their career was a busy round of touring, regular broadcasts over a series of Appalachian and Southern radio stations, and frequent recording sessions. The 1960s folk music revival brought the Stanleys widespread popularity—even European tours—but in 1966 Carter died suddenly. After a few weeks of silence, Ralph reorganized the Clinch Mountain Boys and returned to his extensive performing schedule.

      Ralph played at the inaugurations of U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and Pres. Ronald Reagan named him a National Heritage Fellow. His celebrity was recounted in the book Traveling the High Way Home: Ralph Stanley and the World of Traditional Bluegrass Music (1993) by John Wright. Nonetheless, Stanley continued to live in Coeburn, near where he grew up. He played about 150 dates a year, and, as usual, he spent most of 2002 on tour, appearing at bluegrass festivals, county fairs, parks, city nightclubs, and small-town high-school auditoriums. The majority of his shows were within a day's drive of Coeburn, where he again starred at the 32-year-old Hills of Home Bluegrass Festival. The prolific recording artist of some 185 albums released 2 more albums in 2002—Live at McCabe's Guitar Shop and Ralph Stanley. Though he did not entertain thoughts of retirement, his legacy was already continuing—his son, Ralph Stanley II, was the lead singer and rhythm guitarist for the Clinch Mountain Boys.

John Litweiler

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Universalium. 2010.

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