Remembering Ralph Stanley, Father of Bluegrass
June 23 was a difficult day for the bluegrass community. Ralph Stanley, the Virginia native and bluegrass pioneer, died at 89 years old.
Stanley and his long-time band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, made a memorable appearance in 2012 at the Richmond Folk Festival. Fans also were able to experience the legend alongside Joe Wilson and Frank Newsome on the Virginia Folklife Stage.
“We are truly saddened by this huge loss to the music world, but also grateful for the amazing performances we were treated to by Dr. Ralph,” Tim Timberlake, a longtime member of the Richmond Folk Festival programming committee said. “He was a consummate professional and had the type of voice that would send shivers down your spine, and goosebumps down your arms. He will be greatly missed.”
Picking up the banjo for the first time in his teens, Ralph Stanley began his musical journey by learning from his mother. He and his brother, Carter, drew on down-home melodies popularized by the Carter Family and traditional Appalachian minor-key singing styles. After several years performing on Virginia radio stations, the Stanley Brothers, as they were known at the time, were signed to King Records. There, Ralph would go on to develop his signature “Stanley style” of banjo-playing—rapid index-finger-led forward rolls.
After Carter’s death in 1966, Ralph Stanley eventually decided—with much community encouragement—to revive the Clinch Mountain Boys, who would comprise dozens of members through the years, including Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, and Stanley’s son, Ralph Stanley II.
Stanley achieved mainstream success in 2000 with a recording of “O Death” as part of the soundtrack for the popular film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The stirring a cappella rendition of the Appalachian funeral song won Stanley his career’s only Grammy, and the success of the soundtrack helped boost Appalachian music into the public eye.
Over the course of his lifetime, the music world has shown its appreciation with that Grammy, his induction into the National Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor, his honorary doctorate from Lincoln Memorial University, and a National Medal of Honor.
While the hole Ralph Stanley leaves in the hearts of bluegrass fans will never fully heal, we’re still able to look back over a career of recordings and performances that spanned the better part of a century. He not only kept a tradition alive by influencing generations of musicians, he gave bluegrass to new audiences all over the world.
Here’s to you, Dr. Ralph. You will missed.