Bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley was honored Monday (May 19) when Yale University awarded him a doctor of music during ceremonies in New Haven, Conn., that also saw honorary degrees going to World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee, poet Rita Dove and actor Anna Deavere Smith, among others.
Stanley’s award was presented by Yale president Peter Salovey, a bluegrass enthusiast who plays bass in a band called Professors of Bluegrass.
“You are the patriarch of traditional mountain and bluegrass music,” according to Stanley’s citation. “From the Clinch Mountains of southwest Virginia to the concert halls of the world, you have taken a distinct American sound and made it your own. Your music has its roots in the gospel songs of your childhood and in the banjo playing you learned from your mother. The Stanley style of picking produces a distinctive and characteristic rhythm, and generations of singers have been influenced by your signature voice with its mournful sounds and raw emotional power. You are a living legend, and we sing your praises as we award you this degree.”
The conferral ended with an academic-robed professor playing banjo to kick off a version of Stanley’s famed “Man of Constant Sorrow” as an orchestra picked up the melody and the crowd stood to applaud.
This is Stanley’s second honorary doctorate, the first having been awarded him in 1976 from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn.
Recognized as the leading exponent of traditional Appalachian music and a founding father of bluegrass, the 87-year-old musician has spread his sound around the world during his 68 years of touring and recording. He began his career in 1946 as the younger half of the Stanley Brothers, a group then headed by singer-songwriter Carter Stanley. The Stanley Brothers performed, recorded and appeared on television together until Carter’s death in 1966.
In the years following, Stanley built and led a band that at various times featured such rising talents as Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Larry Sparks and Charlie Sizemore. So significant was the Stanley sound in the 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? that Stanley rocketed from icon to superstar. He was profiled in The New Yorker magazine and went on to earn a Grammy as top male country music vocalist, edging out Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Tim McGraw and Lyle Lovett. To date, he has won three Grammys.
Stanley’s high, forlorn vocals are featured on the O Brother soundtrack album which has sold 7 million copies. In addition, he was the first performer to be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in the 21st century. He is a member of the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and a recipient of the National Medal of Arts.
Stanley’s latest album, Side by Side, pairs him with his son and musical heir, Ralph Stanley II, an acclaimed singer in the Keith Whitley vein.
Among the dozens of world-famous artists who’ve recorded with Stanley are Bob Dylan, George Jones, Bill Monroe, Lucinda Williams, Dolly Parton, Joan Baez, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris, Tom T. Hall, Dwight Yoakam, Iris DeMent, Maria Muldaur, Rhonda Vincent, Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss.
Stanley’s 2002 album Ralph Stanley and the 2005 collection Distant Land to Roam: Songs of the Carter Family were both produced by T Bone Burnett.