Born Ralph Edmond Stanley, on February 25, 1927, in Stratton, VA; son of Lucy Jane (musician) and Lee (musician and sawmill operator); married Jimmi; children: Lisa, Tonya, and Ralph II. Addresses: Record company--Rebel Records, Box 3057, Roanoke, VA 24015. Publicist--Press Office, P.O. Box 210588, Nashville, TN 37221-0588, website: http://www.thepressoffice.net/.
Ralph Stanley is the patriarch of bluegrass, and a banjo player, singer, and songwriter whose work harkens back to the very genesis of the bluegrass style, although he is quick to assert that he plays "old time mountain soul." Stanley made his name singing with his brother Carter and their group, the Clinch Mountain Boys, in the late 1940s. Since then---and despite Carter's sudden death in 1966---Ralph Stanley has been a headliner on the country-folk-bluegrass 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. Their father, Lee, worked as a sawmill operator. The pair learned their otherwordly harmonies from their experiences singing a capella hymns in their local Primitive Baptist church. Ralph took up the banjo when he was barely ten, and soon could pick in both his mother's style and in 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.
Success Beyond Hills of Virginia
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 radio station WNVA in Norton, Virginia. Stanley graduated from high school in May of 1946 and immediately entered the Army. Upon his return to Virginia in 1947, he and Carter formed a band and became an established part of the broadcasts from WCYB in Bristol.
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, and 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 Monroe's, much to the latter's chagrin.
The Stanley Brothers' appearances on Farm and Fun Time made it a WCYB favorite program, and the band was in demand and frequently toured through the region, with rare side trips to Detroit, Michigan, and the famed Louisiana Hayride based in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Stanley Brothers signed with a Bristol recording label, Rich-R-Tone, and cut their first bluegrass side, "Molly and Tenbrooks," in 1948. The Stanleys had heard Monroe perform it, but Monroe did not release a recording until September of 1949.
According to former Rich-R-Tone salesman Carl Sauceman, interviewed in Bluegrass: A History, the Stanley Brothers were a regional hit. "Every time I walked into a record store and they found out I was selling Rich-R-Tone, they'd holler for me to bring them a load of Stanley Brothers records." Regionally, they were outselling the popular Eddy Arnold, but not fairing so well outside Virginia and Kentucky. Sauceman attributed this to the association between mountain music and the rural working class. "People tied a banjo and fiddle with Kentucky, with coal mining, with rural hillbillies and, socially, people that were more educated, maybe more socially prominent, they turned their nose down at it." The following year they moved to the larger Columbia label, where they turned out some of bluegrass music's classic recordings. Monroe, tiffed at the signing, moved to Decca. Among the Brothers' enduring songs from the 1948 to 1951 Columbia sessions are "Man of Constant Sorrow," "Too Late to Cry," and "Pretty Polly."
Despite what Monroe may have thought, the Stanley Brothers did not achieve fame clinging to any other artist's coattails. 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's picking style. The brothers made fine vocal harmony, with Ralph singing tenor and Carter the melody. Charlie Louvin of the Louvin Brothers, in a 1989 interview with North Carolina's Winston-Salem Journal, called Stanley "one of the greatest tenor harmony singers who ever drew a breath."
The Stanley Brothers endured some very lean years in the mid-1950s. Ralph Stanley told Gordon, "This rock and roll trend, with Elvis Presley, changed everything around. 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, but actually thrived artistically, and thus were poised to take advantage of the new interest in bluegrass music brought about by the folk revival of the early 1960s. In 1960 the Clinch Mountain Boys had their last mainstream hit with "How Far to Little Rock."
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.
Embarked on Career Without Brother
Unlike some musicians who work with their siblings, the Stanley brothers were extremely close. The group had been together for almost two decades. Writing in No Depression, Jon Weisberger observed that "For Ralph, left to carry on as a solo artist, [The Stanley Brothers'] body of work amounted to a double-edged sword. He embraced it as profoundly his, yet wanted to distance himself from it. He went back to work within a week of Carter's death, and almost as quickly began to take his own music in a different direction---back to the future, as it were."
Ralph recruited musicians who played and sang just like his deceased brother, including two Clinch Mountain Boys, Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley, who were vocalists of note in the era immediately after Carter's passing. The 1970-72 era duets of Skaggs and Whitley, according to Neil V. Rosenburg in Bluegrass: A History, "almost sound more like Carter and Ralph than Carter and Ralph themselves." 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. The Stanley Brothers proved to be enormously influential in the course of country music---Skaggs, Larry Sparks, Charlie Sizemore, Marty Stuart, and the late Whitley were all former Clinch Mountain Boys.
Ralph Stanley was awarded an honorary doctor of arts degree from Lincoln Memorial University in 1976. The honor became a source of pride, and since then, Stanley has been respectfully referred to as Dr. Ralph Stanley. In addition to his seemingly non-stop recording and performing career, Stanley has long been active in Democratic Party politics. He ran unsuccessfully for commissioner of revenue and circuit court clerk in the 1970s, and was appointed to the county school board in 1992, serving a four-year term. During the 2004 presidential elections he stumped for candidate John Kerry. He is also known to spend his time off the road tending to his farm and cattle.
O Popularity Where Art Thou?
In the 1990s Stanley's fortunes were to markedly change. Both Stanley and traditional music were being enthusiastically rediscovered. In 1992 he and the band recorded the two-disc Saturday Night/Sunday Morning with notables in the industry. The double CD included traditional and gospel songs such as "Banks of the Ohio," "Rank Stranger" "I Never Will Marry," and "Angel Band." The project earned three Grammy nominations and elevated Stanley's musical celebrity.
In 1998 he recorded Clinch Mountain Country, a project on which he was joined by notable popular artists including Bob Dylan, Vince Gill, George Jones, and others such as Dwight Yoakam, Patty Loveless, and former band members Stuart and Skaggs. Clinch Mountain Country received several International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards, including Album of the Year and Recorded Event of the Year. Following on its success, Stanley released Clinch Mountain Sweethearts, recording with female singers including Welch, Iris Dement, Joan Baez and Dolly Parton. Like its predecessor, it received the IBMA award for Recorded Event of the Year.
In an unusual premonition of sorts, Stanley, in a 1998 interview with The Virginian Pilot said he thought his rendition of "I'm a Man of Constant Sorrow"---in the words of reporter Ben Ratliff---"could be his license to enter the region of best singers in the world." Stanley said this was because "Most people sing it straight. ... But I add just a little of my own feel to it. I guess that's why you can pick me out from most anybody else with your back turned to me."
The Stanley renaissance continued, thanks to his participation in the soundtrack to The Coen Brothers' film O Brother Where Art Thou. T. Bone Burnett assembled an all-star lineup, with vocalists to dub the actors' voices, including ex-Union Station musician Dan Tyminsky. It was Tyminsky whose fame was made by singing "Man of Constant Sorrow," while Stanley's rendition of "O Death" was lauded for providing the eerie backdrop for a group of Ku Klux Klansmen executing a choreographed lynching with Busby Berkley precision.
The soundtrack for the 2000 film won numerous awards, including five Grammys---two of which were won by Stanley, including the Grammy for Country Male Vocal Performance---and two Country Music Association awards. It also gave Stanley "a measure of fame that had eluded him through more than five decades as a bluegrass entertainer," according to Jay Votel in The Washington Times. That same year Stanley won his first Grammy Award and was made a member of the Grand Ole Opry. "I've been nominated about six times, but that's my first win," Stanley said of his Grammy win in a 2002 interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Stanley has remained well-respected among his peers and band members. Many of them were happy to see him get his due, which included the opening in 2004 of The Ralph Stanley Museum & Traditional Mountain Music Center in Clintwood, Virginia. "He's the man," James Alan Shelton, the lead guitarist and road manager for the Clinch Mountain Boys, told the Winston-Salem Journal. "And it makes me proud that he is getting recognition that is long overdue. He's been doing this for 52 years, and the thing is, he still sounds great."
"And the same is true of his banjo playing. Nobody else can get that sound. Listen to him play. He wants what he plays to reflect the lyrics, to say the words. If he slurs a note with his voice, he wants the banjo to slur it, too. He wants to make that instrument speak," said Shelton. "There are banjo players who might be able to play 10,000 notes to Ralph's 10, but they'll never be Ralph Stanley."
The momentum continued unabated. For Ralph Stanley, released in 2002, Stanley recorded traditional songs, including the chestnut "Girl from the Greenbriar Shore" and the murder ballad "Little Mathie Grove," without the backing of the Clinch Mountain Boys, by enlisting a-list traditional musicians such as Norman Blake and Mike Compton. "Stanley sounds downright biblical on the self-titled release. Timeless, really. His dry, dignified voice carries an ancient authority utterly at odds with today's disposable, flyweight pop," wrote Larry Katz in the Boston Herald. Katz added, "Stanley delivers his music without sugarcoating of any kind. It's no-nonsense antique Americana for adults and it should be embraced by the same educated, older audience that loved 'O Brother.'"
Well after O Brother was out of theaters and on video, the music continued to be popular. By June of 2002 the soundtrack had been atop the Billboard charts for 75 weeks and had sold more than six million copies. Several arena tours were spawned by this phenomenon. "Well, my singing on the soundtrack of 'O Brother' did it all," Stanley quipped to The Cincinnati Post. "I'm enjoying things much better now. I'm very thankful for what's happened to me."
"I've always had good success over the years, but I never really thought of it as carrying on a tradition until now," Stanley said in an interview with The Houston Chronicle. "I think I can look back now and see what my place in history will be. I've just always tried to do my job right."
by Anne Janette Johnson and Linda Dailey Paulson
Ralph Stanley's Career
Banjo player and vocalist, 1938--; With brother, Carter Stanley, began playing and singing professionally for station WNVA, Norton, Va., c. 1942; moved to WCYB, Bristol, TN, 1946; member of the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, 1946-66; currently plays as Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys; signed with Rich-R-Tone Records, 1948; moved to Columbia Records, 1949; also recorded with Mercury, Starday, and King labels; toured widely in the United States, Europe, and Canada, and appeared at the Newport Folk Festival and the Albert Hall in London.
Ralph Stanley's Awards
National Endowment for the Humanities, Traditional American Music Award (first recipient ever), 1985; International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Honor Inductee, 1992; International Bluegrass Music Association, Recorded Event of the Year, for Saturday Night/Sunday Morning, 1993; International Bluegrass Music Association, Album of the Year and Recorded Event of the Year, for Clinch Mountain Country, 1999; Library of Congress"Living Legend" Medal, 2000; inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, 2000; International Bluegrass Music Association and Country Music Association, Album of the Year (contributor), for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2001; Grammy Awards, Best Male Country Vocal Performance for "Oh Death"; Album of the Year (contributor), for O Brother Where Art Thou, 2002; Grammy Award, Best Bluegrass Album for Lost In The Lonesome Pines, 2003; North American Folk Alliance, Lifetime Achievement Award, 2003; Virginia Press Association, Virginian of the Year, 2004.
- Selected discography
- Solo albums
- Hills of Home King, 1969.
- Ralph Stanley: A Man and His Music Rebel, 1973.
- Songs My Mother Taught Me & More: Clawhammer Style Banjo Freeland, 1998.
- Ralph Stanley  Columbia, 2002.
- Great High Mountain Rebel, 2004.
- Shine On Rebel, 2005.
- With the Clinch Mountain Boys
- A Cry from the Cross Rebel.
- Old Home Place Rebel.
- Live in Japan! Rebel, 1971.
- The Stanley Sound Around the World King, 1975.
- Ralph Stanley Plays Requests Rebel.
- Ralph Stanley With the Clinch Mountain Boys Rebel.
- The Stanley Sound Today Rebel, 1981.
- Bound to Ride Rebel, 1991.
- 1971-1973 (4-CD set), Rebel, 1995.
- I Want To Preach the Gospel Rebel, 1996.
- Down Where the River Bends Rebel, 1996.
- Sixteen Years Copper Creek, 1996.
- Short Life of Trouble: Songs of Grayson & Whitter Rebel, 1996.
- 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, 1986.
- Clinch Mountain Gospel Rebel, 2001.
- Man of Constant Sorrow Rebel, 2001.
- Live at McCabe's Guitar Shop 2-11-01 DCN, 2002.
- With Carter Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys
- That Little Old Country Church House County.
- Long Journey Home Rebel, 1961.
- 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, 1966.
- Mountain Music Sounds Starday.
- Hymns of the Cross King, 1964.
- Good Old Camp Meeting Songs King, 1962.
- The Best of the Stanley Brothers Starday.
- For the Good People King, 1960.
- 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.
- The Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys King, 1959.
- Mountain Song Favorites Starday, 1959.
- With various artists
- Saturday Night/Sunday Morning Freeland, 1995.
- Clinch Mountain Country Rebel, 1998.
- O Brother Where Art Thou (soundtrack), Mercury, 2000.
- Clinch Mountain Sweethearts Rebel, 2001.
- 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.
- Rosenburg, Neil V., Bluegrass: A History, Illini Books, 1993.
- Atlantic, March 1972.
- Boston Herald, June 12, 2002.
- Cincinnati Post, May 6, 2004.
- Denver Post, June 17, 2002.
- Houston Chronicle, August 8, 2002.
- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 20, 2002.
- No Depression, May-June 1998.
- Post and Courier (Charleston, SC), March 18, 2004.
- Roanoke Times, May 22, 1997; November 20, 2002; October 29, 2004.
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 5, 2002.
- Virginian Pilot, October 1, 1998.
- Washington Times, October 14, 2004.
- Winston-Salem Journal (North Carolina), April 17, 1998.