Ralph Stanley, pioneering bluegrass musician and one of the foremost remaining links to the origins of traditional American music, died Thursday evening at his home in Sandy Ridge, Virginia due to complications from skin cancer. Stanley was 89.
“My heart is broken into pieces,” wrote Ralph’s grandson Nathan, who in recent years had become a member of Stanley’s band the Clinch Mountain Boys and had helped his grandfather tour over the past several years, wrote Thursday evening.
Ralph Stanley dedicated his entire life to the music he heard growing up in Appalachian 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 30’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 their recording career 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.”
Ralph Stanley led the Clinch Mountain Boys for another 50 years, directing the band towards a more traditional sound and introducing generations of audiences to ages-old American folk ballads and standards. In later years his concerts were, in essence, a lesson in American musical history, a rare, invaluable glimpse back to a world of pre-electric instrumentation with a songbook that relied heavily on material written in the first half of the 20th century.
Ralph Stanley’s legacy in bluegrass and traditional country music circles was incomparable. “His driving, arpeggiated banjo style, led with the index finger instead of the thumb, and now known widely as ‘Stanley Style,’ was as important to the development of bluegrass as the banjo itself,” wrote John Curtis Goad in Bluegrass Today after Stanley’s passing. As a vocalist, Stanley helped create the very notion of the “high lonesome” sound with his mournful tenor, which often sounded as if it contained all the world’s sorrow. Stanley, who grew up singing in the Baptist church, also forever fused gospel music with bluegrass, infusing his music with the spirituals and hymns of his youth.
Stanley has influenced generations of musicians, from Bob Dylan and Marty Stuart to contemporary country singers like Dierks Bentley and Lee Ann Womack. “He was the king of mountain soul and a force of nature,” Jim Lauderdale said of Stanley after his passing. “He really stands among the greatest musicians in any genre.”
At the turn of the century, Ralph Stanley enjoyed an unexpected career renaissance due to his involvement in the blockbuster film O Brother, Where Art Thou? In 2002, Stanley would go on to win a Grammy for his chilling a cappella version of the hymn “O Death” included on the movie’s soundtrack. The film brought Stanley and his music legions of new, younger fans and reinvigorated Stanley’s touring with the Clinch Mountain Boys in the last decade-plus of his career. “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.”
In 2015, Ralph Stanley released his final album, a loving collection of duets that featured renditions of his most famous songs with artists like Gillian Welch, Ricky Skaggs, Elvis Costello, and Robert Plant.
In later years, Stanley remained the consummate performer, remaining ever the humble, gracious entertainer. “That’s my main goal,” he said recently. “To be good to my fans, to be good to everyone who comes to my shows.”
In 2013, Ralph Stanley reflected on his improbable career as a central figure in American music, one so influential that he had an entire museum devoted to his life’s work.
“I was just a little old mountain boy who went through all those woods bare-footed,” he said. “To get up as big as I have, I’m real proud of that. I’m not trying to boast. It’s something I never dreamed would happen.”