Ralph Stanley

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Ralph Stanley, pioneering bluegrass musician and one of the principal remaining links to the origins of traditional American music, died June 23rd at his home in Sandy Ridge, Virginia due to complications from skin cancer. Stanley was 89.   

A venerated long-standing stalwart loved by the bluegrass community, in the 1990s he found unexpected new audiences. Some were drawn by the collaborative albums Saturday Night & Sunday Morning (1992), where he was joined by Monroe, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and other admirers, and Clinch Mountain Country (1997), where the circle of friends expanded to embrace Bob Dylan. But more doors, and ears, were opened by his cameo in the Coen brothers’ 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where his voice is heard in the chilling a cappella threnody ‘O Death’, issuing from the shadowed hood of a Ku Klux Klansman.

“The harvest came when O Brother hit, it took 25 years, but it was worth the wait. I met a new audience,” Stanley told American Songwriter years later. “It just doubled and tripled. It put the icing on the cake for me.”

Stanley’s work was rooted in the Appalachian terrain in which bluegrass grew, and from which his vast store of ballads, songs, banjo tunes and sacred music was harvested. “As far back as I can remember,” he said in his 2009 autobiography, Man of Constant Sorrow, “I had an old-time mountain voice, weathered and lived-in, like something you’d hear moaning in the woods late of a night.”

Ralph Stanley dedicated his entire life to the music he heard growing up in Southwest Virginia. “I started out the way I was raised, in the old-time mountain style,” Stanley, who always preferred the phrase “mountain music” to “bluegrass,” said in 2009. “And I’ve never wavered from it.”

Growing up in the 1930’s, Stanley listened to the music of the Carter Family and sang in church, learning to play banjo from his mother and eventually forming a group with his brother, Carter. Ralph and Carter, who would become known as the Stanley Brothers, began recording in 1947 and would go on, alongside artists like Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys and Flatt and Scruggs, to help mainstream and popularize bluegrass music for country and popular music audiences on and off over the next two decades.

“We were real natural,” Stanley once said of his musical partnership with his brother. “We spoke our words alike, and we liked the same things, and it just fell into place.”

After his brother Carter died in 1966 at the age of 41, Ralph Stanley, unsure of how to continue without his lifelong musical partner, decided to commit himself to the traditional music of his home.

“I pulled myself up, and I made up my mind that music was all I could do, all I ever was meant to do,” Stanley wrote in his autobiography. “And I was going to do it.”

Read the rest in Issue 82…