Dr. Ralph Stanley, bluegrass pioneer from 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' soundtrack, dies at 89
The roots of country music run deep in the mountains of Southwest Virginia.
There was the Carter Family from Maces Spring, A.P. and Sara and Maybelle and eventually young June, who would marry a strapping man in black named Johnny Cash. There was Ralph Peer and his famed 1927 “Bristol Sessions,” considered the Big Bang of country music, the first time the roots and gospel traditions of the mountains were laid to tape for the masses.
Farther up the road in McClure you had Ralph Stanley, the bluegrass pioneer whose crusty tenor could only have come from Depression-era coal and tobacco country.
Stanley died Thursday at age 89 after battling skin cancer, his grandson and musical collaborator Nathan Stanley confirmed to fans on Facebook.
“He was my world, and he was my everything,” Nathan wrote. “He was always there for me no matter what. I just cannot get a grip on this. My Papaw was loved by millions of fans from all around the world, and he loved all of you. If he was singing and on stage, he was happy.”
Stanley was the oldest living member of the Grand Ole Opry, but as is often the case on the crooked back roads of Appalachia, it took him a while to get there. Inspired by Bill Monroe, he and older brother Carter, known collaboratively as the Stanley Brothers, combined the folk and gospel traditions of their youth with innovative banjo and guitar playing and instrumentation.
“He’s really the last of that first generation of bluegrass pickers and singers,” said country star Dierks Bentley, who appeared on Stanley’s final studio album, 2015’s Ralph Stanley & Friends: Man of Constant Sorrow. “He didn’t polish it up. He just took it straight out of the hills and played it the way he learned it. Real mountain music.”
The Stanley Brothers cranked out influential bluegrass tracks like The Lonesome River and I’m Lonesome Without You in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, with artists like Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead covering traditional songs the Stanleys made famous.
The bottle took Carter in 1966, but Ralph soldiered on with his band the Clinch Mountain Boys, playing with legends like George Shuffler and Larry Sparks; later talents like Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley; and eventually his son Ralph II and Nathan.
Stanley was always respected by bluegrassers for his clawhammer-based banjo style, and always revered back home in Appalachia – in 1976 he picked up an honorary doctorate from Lincoln Memorial University near the Virginia-Tennessee-Kentucky intersection; he would thenceforth wear the title “Dr. Ralph Stanley” with pride.
But he was never really appreciated by the masses until O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000.
Elements of the Coen Brothers’ Deep South twist on Homer’s Odyssey likely could’ve come from Stanley’s own diary – in fact, the film wouldn’t have been the same without him. The film’s centerpiece song, I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow, is an old folk tune the Stanley Brothers helped popularize, and a couple other tracks appear on the Grammy-winning soundtrack, Angel Band and O Death.
No one else could’ve sung O Death with Stanley’s haunting power. No one. His voice, pained and wizened, sounded like that of the Grim Reaper himself. For the song, he won a shocking yet richly deserved Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance (over luminaries like Cash and Willie Nelson, no less).
O Brother was the reminder America needed that Stanley was a living legend, because from then on, he was treated like one. He received the National Medal of Arts in 2006, one of many career recognitions in his late-in-life resurgence. Even into his 80s, he’d tour and play festivals and venues big and small, from Bonnaroo to his own namesake festival in McClure, which recently marked its 46th year.
“I know one of these days I won’t be around,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2012, “but I’ll never completely retire until I have to.”
They pass down stories in the mountains of Southwest Virginia. They pass down music, too. From McClure to Maces Spring to Bristol and beyond, they’ll be telling stories and singing songs of Dr. Ralph Stanley for generations to come.
-- Jay Cridlin