Full name, Ralph Edmond Stanley; born February 25, 1927, in Stratton, Va.; son of country musicians. Addresses: Record company-- Rebel Records, Box 3057, Roanoke, VA 24015.
Ralph Stanley is one of the patriarchs of bluegrass, a banjo player, singer, and songwriter whose work harks back to the very genesis of the bluegrass style. Stanley made his name singing with his brother Carter and their group, the Clinch Mountain Boys, in the late 1940s. Ever since that time--and despite Carter's sudden death in 1966-- Ralph Stanley has been a headliner on the country-folk circuit. As Douglas Gordon put it in The Big Book of Bluegrass, Stanley's "sky-reaching tenor voice and the simple, bright clarity of his banjo are sounds dear to the ears of thousands of loyal fans."
Ralph and Carter Stanley were born and raised in Virginia's Clinch Mountains, a fertile ground for stringband musicians. Their parents both played musical instruments, and their mother often entertained with the banjo, playing it in the old clawhammer style. Ralph took up the banjo when he was barely ten and soon could pick in both his mother's style and a finger-and-thumb style that he learned from a mountain musician. Carter gravitated to the guitar, and soon the brothers were singing and picking together.
Atlantic contributor Robert Cantwell noted that the Stanley Brothers' style was "strangely steeped in an ancient mountain modality which persisted even after they had acquired the habits of bluegrass." The brothers actually began performing professionally even before the music known as "bluegrass" was born. In the early 1940s--when both were still teens--they could be heard on WNVA in Norton, Virginia. They moved to the larger WCYB in Bristol, on the Virginia/Tennessee border, in 1946.
Just at the same time, a banjoist named Earl Scruggs was introducing a new picking style as a member of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Ralph Stanley was quick to incorporate the new style into his own playing. By 1947 the Stanley Brothers had gained wide popularity by playing music similar to Bill Monroe's. They could therefore lay claim to the distinction of being perhaps the second or third bluegrass band in the country. At any rate, the Stanley Brothers' Farm and Fun Time show became a favorite radio broadcast on WCYB, and the group was in high demand for live shows as well.
"Now that was one happy time," Ralph Stanley told Gordon. "We started playing five, six, seven nights a week. And everywhere we'd go we'd pack [the house] one or two times. I know for a time in '47 we was booked as high as 90 days ahead. Those were some real happy days." The Stanley Brothers signed with a Bristol recording label, Rich-R-Tone, and cut their first bluegrass side, "Molly and Tenbrooks," in 1948. The following year they moved to the larger Columbia label, where they turned out some of bluegrass music's classic recordings.
The Stanley Brothers did not achieve fame clinging to any other artist's coat tails. In fact they carved a unique style, greatly in debt to the simple, mournful, and often eerie music of their Clinch Mountain home. Ralph wrote a number of enduring songs, including "Rank Stranger," "White Dove," "The Fields have Turned Brown," and "Clinch Mountain Backstep," a spirited banjo tune that made advances on the Scruggs picking style. The brothers made fine vocal harmony together, too, with Ralph taking tenor and Carter taking lead. The band was rounded out by a variety of sidemen on mandolin, fiddle, and bass.
Ralph Stanley told Gordon that the Stanley Brothers endured some very lean years in the mid-1950s. "This rock and roll trend, with Elvis Presley, changed everything around," he said. "Flatt and Scruggs, Don Reno and Red Smiley, Bill Monroe, and the Stanley Brothers were the only bands I know who survived that.... We wasn't makin' a livin' at it then, but we survived." The Stanley Brothers not only survived, they actually thrived artistically, and thus they were well poised to take advantage of the new interest in bluegrass brought about by the folk revival of the early 1960s.
Between 1960 and 1966, the popularity of the Stanley Brothers soared. They played all over the United States and in such unlikely venues as Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, and Denmark. A highlight of their career came in March of 1966 when they performed at London's Albert Hall. Later that same year they were featured entertainers at the prestigious Bean Blossom bluegrass festival in Bean Blossom, Indiana. And then, quite suddenly, Carter Stanley died on December 1, 1966.
Unlike some musicians who work with their siblings, the Stanley brothers were very close. For years after Carter's death Ralph paid homage to his brother in every show he did. More significantly, Ralph recruited musicians who played and sang just like his deceased brother. Cantwell wrote in 1972 that to hear Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys "is to feel that Carter has been reincarnated.... To hear the whole group ... is to hear not only Ralph and Carter Stanley but also a kind of geological record of their career, collapsed into some of the most hair-raising and beautiful harmonies in any music."
Ralph may have intended to preserve his brother's memory, but what he also preserved was the sound of the very roots of bluegrass. Throughout the 1980s he continued to perform with the Clinch Mountain Boys and also lent his talents to such avant-garde groups as the O'Kanes. The Stanley Brothers have proven enormously influential in the course of country music--Ricky Skaggs, for instance, is a former Clinch Mountain Boy, and a number of virtuoso banjoists list Ralph as a mentor.
"If Bill Monroe's voice sounds like the wind," Cantwell wrote, "Ralph Stanley's sounds like the woods.... Ralph's voice is not perfect; there is a slight quaver in it, and a laurel twig. But it can stir up matter at the primitive floor of the soul with as much authority as a Navajo chant." Ralph Stanley was awarded an honorary Doctor of Arts degree from Lincoln Memorial University in 1976. He lives in McClure, Virginia, a town not far from his Clinch Mountain birthplace.
by Anne Janette Johnson
Ralph Stanley's Career
Banjo player and vocalist, 1938--. With brother, Carter Stanley (guitarist/vocalist; born August 27, 1925, died December 1, 1966), began playing and singing professionally for station WNVA, Norton, Va., ca. 1942; moved to WCYB, Bristol, Tenn., 1946. Member of the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, 1946-66; currently plays as Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Other Clinch Mountain Boys have included Pee Wee Lambert (mandolin), George Shuffler (mandolin), Curly Cline (fiddle), Ricky Skaggs (mandolin, fiddle), Keith Whitley (guitar), Ricky Lee, and Jack Cooke. Signed with Rich-R-Tone Records (Bristol, Va.), 1948; moved to Columbia Records, 1949; also recorded with Mercury, Starday, and King labels. Group has toured widely in the United States, Europe, and Canada and has appeared at the Newport Folk Festival and at the Albert Hall in London.
- Solo Albums
- Ralph Stanley: A Man and His Music Rebel.
- Hills of Home King.
- With the Clinch Mountain Boys
- A Cry from the Cross Rebel.
- Old Home Place Rebel.
- The Stanley Sound Around the World King.
- Ralph Stanley Plays Requests Rebel.
- Ralph Stanley With the Clinch Mountain Boys Rebel.
- I Want To Preach the Gospel Rebel.
- Let Me Rest on Peaceful Mountain Rebel.
- Old Country Church Rebel.
- Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys Live in Japan Rebel.
- Lonesome and Blue Rebel.
- With Carter Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys
- That Little Old Country Church House County.
- Long Journey Home County.
- The Legendary Stanley Brothers Recorded Live, Volume 1 Rebel.
- The Legendary Stanley Brothers Recorded Live, Volume 2 Rebel.
- Folk Concert Starday.
- Jacob's Vision Starday.
- Mountain Music Sounds Starday.
- Hymns of the Cross King.
- Good Old Camp Meeting Songs Starday.
- The Best of the Stanley Brothers Starday.
- For the Good People King.
- The Stanley Brothers' First Album Melodeon.
- The Stanley Brothers Mercury.
- The Stanley Brothers Together for the Last Time Rebel.
- The Stanley Brothers on the Air Wangol.
- Banjo in the Hills Starday.
- Sing the Songs I Like Best King.
- The Stanley Brothers in Person Power Pak.
- Bluegrass, Volume 1 Rounder.
- Bluegrass, Volume 2 Rounder.
- The Stanley Brothers' Sixteen Greatest Hits Starday.
- Mountain Boys King.
- Mountain Song Favorites Nashville.
- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977.
- Kochman, Marilyn, editor, The Big Book of Bluegrass, Morrow, 1984.
- Malone, Bill C., Country Music U.S.A., revised edition, University of Texas Press, 1985.
- Atlantic, March 1972.