Ralph Stanley - Biography
Ralph Stanley is the longest-lived of the pioneering musicians who established the form of latter-day string band music known as “bluegrass” in the late 1940s. Stanley himself prefers the term “old-time mountain music”; a Virginian, he may take issue with the genre’s handle, established by the name of Kentuckian Bill Monroe’s founding unit, The Blue Grass Boys. With Monroe’s death in 1996 and banjo player Earl Scruggs’ concurrent move into semi-retirement, Stanley became the most prominent bluegrass originator still on the scene.
Following Monroe’s lead, banjoist and tenor vocalist Stanley and his brother, singer-guitarist Carter, codified the bluegrass sound with a classic series of recordings in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. Following Carter’s death, Ralph Stanley took on sole leadership of their group, The Clinch Mountain Boys. Revered by bluegrass fans for half a century, he became an American icon in 2001, thanks to a key vocal performance in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? He introduced a new generation to the “high lonesome sound” in the new millennium.
Born Feb. 25, 1927 in Stratton, Virginia, in rural Dickenson County, Ralph Stanley was 18 months younger than his brother Carter. As boys, they were reared on radio performances and 78 records by such old-time hillbilly musicians as The Carter Family, Grayson and Whitter, and Mainer’s Mountaineers. Their father familiarized them with songs like “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” while their mother was a banjo player who played in the old-fashioned “clawhammer” (or “frailing”) style. Members of the Primitive Baptist church, the Stanleys were also well versed in the traditional hymnal. In their early teens, Carter took up guitar and Ralph began playing the banjo.
In 1946, the Stanleys emerged from military service and began professional musical careers. Carter Stanley was impressed by the new string-band sound of Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, then reaching the peak of their virtuosity with the addition of guitarist Lester Flatt and banjoist Earl Scruggs (whose three-finger picking style Ralph would merge with his clawhammer attack). The Stanleys’ similarly styled quartet, The Clinch Mountain Boys, began performing on local radio stations WNVA (in Norton, Virginia) and WCYB (in Bristol, Virginia). The latter town was also the home of an independent label, Rich-R-Tone, which in 1947 cut the first of four sessions with The Stanley Brothers.
Swiftly establishing themselves as brilliant exponents of the new and vital bluegrass sound, The Stanley Brothers recorded prolifically for Columbia (1949-1952), Mercury (1953-1958), and King/Starday (1958-1965). Classics of their kind, these sides stood somewhat apart from the work of other bluegrass groups of the era. Instead of flashing the high-velocity virtuosity found in the work of Monroe’s bands and other hotshot units, the Stanleys emphasized a lower-key, tradition-bound sound more in keeping with their early string-band precursors. (At the same time, both Carter and Ralph Stanley contributed original songs that became linchpins of the modern bluegrass repertoire.) By the ‘60s, The Stanley Brothers and The Clinch Mountain Boys were touring internationally and headlining the prestigious Newport Folk Festival.
On Dec. 1, 1966, Carter Stanley died from cirrhosis of the liver, a consequence of years of alcohol abuse. Ralph swiftly decided to carry on and assumed leadership of The Clinch Mountain Boys, who were on the road within a week of Carter’s passing. In February 1967, a 19-year-old Ohio singer-guitarist named Larry Sparks was hired as lead vocalist. Sparks appeared on three albums recorded by the reconfigured Clinch Mountain Boys — Brand New Country Songs (1968), Over the Sunset Hill (1969), and Hills of Home (1969) — on King Records. (These LPs, along with First Time Together, a 1980 Stanley duet date for King with Jimmy Martin, are collected on the three-CD set Poor Rambler .)
Sparks moved on to a solo career, and in 1970 Stanley formed an edition of The Clinch Mountain Boys that may have been the most highly admired lineup of the band in its history. His guitarist and vocalist was Roy Lee Centers, a Kentuckian who sang uncannily like Carter Stanley. Two teenaged Kentuckians also became prominent members of the group: singer-guitarist Keith Whitley and mandolinist-fiddler-vocalist Ricky Skaggs. With all this brilliant vocal talent on hand, Stanley increasingly led his group in a cappella gospel performances, which became a fixture of their concert appearances. The Clinch Mountain Boys’ tradition-steeped style was at odds with the virtuosic “newgrass” sound then on the rise, but Stanley’s commitment to bluegrass’ roots was widely praised by connoisseurs of the genre.
The Centers-Whitley-Skaggs lineup was the first to record for Rebel Records, a small Maryland independent label whose roster also included the notable bluegrass groups The Country Gentlemen and The Seldom Scene. (Stanley’s relationship with the company would continue into the next century.) This classic unit was featured on the Rebel albums Cry From the Cross (1971), Something Old-Something New (1971), and The Old Country Church (1972) (collected with five other early-‘70s albums on the four-CD 1995 boxed set 1971-1973) and on a pair of LPs issued on the tiny Jessup label (compiled on the 2001 CD Echoes of the Stanley Brothers). Both Skaggs and Whitley soon moved on to their own dazzling solo careers; tragically, Centers was shot to death by a jealous husband in May 1974.
Stanley became one of the most popular bluegrass festival attractions of the ‘70s. In 1976, he received an honorary doctorate from Lincoln Memorial University, which led to his customary billing as “Dr. Ralph Stanley.”
Very little of Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys’ work from the mid-‘70s through the late ‘80s is currently in print. Though Stanley regularly entered the studio to cut both secular and religious material for Rebel Records, the music originally appeared on LPs and cassettes, and only a smattering of it made the transition to the digital format. The 2005 compilation Mountain Preacher’s Child is drawn mainly from three gospel albums cut between 1979 and 1985, and includes tracks featuring Charlie Sizemore, Stanley’s lead singer of the period (and — ironically, considering the scarcity of his work — the longest tenured Clinch Mountain Boys vocalist). Among the titles that did arrive on CD were the gospel albums I’ll Answer the Call (1988), the only album featuring lead singer Sammy Adkins, and Pray For the Boys (1991), with vocalist Ernie Thacker. Like Father, Like Son (1989) marked the first appearance on record by Stanley’s son Ralph II, who was then not yet in his teens.
In the early ‘90s, Stanley started releasing a series of star-studded albums that began to expand his audience beyond his bluegrass constituency. The first of these, Saturday Night & Sunday Morning (1992), was a two-disc set divided between secular and sacred material (much of it remakes of old Stanley classics), with guest appearances by Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam, Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, Vince Gill, and Tom T. Hall, plus former Clinch Mountain Boys Ricky Skaggs, Larry Sparks, and Charlie Sizemore. The collection received three Grammy Award nominations.
That album was succeeded by Clinch Mountain Country (1998), with guest shots by Bob Dylan, former Clinch Mountain Boy Marty Stuart, Porter Wagoner, and returnees Jones, Gill, Yoakam, and Loveless, and Clinch Mountain Sweethearts (2001), co-starring such female vocalists as Lucinda Williams, Iris DeMent, Dolly Parton, Melba Montgomery, Gillian Welch, and Joan Baez. During the same period, Stanley issued a pair of cross-generational collaborations with the outstanding Nashville singer-songwriter and new traditionalist Jim Lauderdale, I Feel Like Singing Today (1999) and Lost in the Lonesome Pines (2002).
As superior as these albums were, it was a soundtrack appearance that placed Ralph Stanley squarely in the American consciousness. In 2000, producer-musician T Bone Burnett recorded Stanley performing a chilling rendition of the traditional “O Death” for Joel and Ethan Coen’s dark period comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou? The film also featured a fresh version of The Stanley Brothers’ 1950 standard “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” performed by The Soggy Bottom Boys (a studio unit fronted by Dan Tyminski of Alison Krauss’ band Union Station).
The release of the soundtrack album in late 2000 became a watershed event in the spread of Americana. It was an unexpected smash hit, rising to No. 1 on the Billboard 200; to date, it has sold more than 7 million copies. At the Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles on February 27, 2002 — two days after Stanley’s 75th birthday -- the album scooped up five awards, including a first Grammy for Stanley, whose “O Death” was named best male country vocal performance; as a contributing artist, he also shared in O Brother’s album of the year award. (The following year, his second collaboration with Lauderdale received the best bluegrass album Grammy.) Stanley was among the stars of Down From the Mountain, a 2001 documentary by Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus drawn from concert dates by the performers heard in O Brother.
With the turning of the millennium, Stanley began collecting new honors. In 2000, he finally became a member of the Grand Ole Opry; the same year, he was named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the North American Folk Alliance in 2003. In 2006, President George W. Bush presented him with the National Medal of the Arts, the country’s highest honor for artistic excellence.
While his recording schedule grew less frequent, Stanley issued some noteworthy albums in recent years. Ralph Stanley (2002), issued on T-Bone Burnett’s DMZ imprint, was a solid mixture of folk and gospel material; it was succeeded by A Distant Land to Roam: Songs of the Carter Family, which interpreted material by the founding hillbilly group that was a formative influence on The Stanley Brothers. Rebel Records issued a new all-gospel collection, Shine On (2005).
In his 80s, Stanley continued to tour relentlessly with The Clinch Mountain Boys, whose members included his son Ralph II, who joined his father’s group full-time in 1995, and his teenaged grandson Nathan; bassist Jack Cooke has been with the group for an astounding 36 years. On Memorial Day weekend in 2009, Stanley hosted his 39th annual Hills of Home Bluegrass Festival in his hometown of Coeburn, Virginia. The Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center, established in 2004 in Clintwood, Virginia, preserves this great American musician’s artistic legacy.