Bluegrass music pioneer and Grand Ole Opry star Ralph Stanley died Thursday (June 23) at his home in Coebun, Virginia, at age 89 following a long battle with skin cancer.
Initially recognized as the high-tenor, banjo-picking half of the Stanley Brothers bluegrass act (1946-1966), Stanley went on to build a distinguished and honor-filled career as a vocal stylist and leader of the Clinch Mountain Boys band.
His stature as an American musical treasure grew enormously following his appearance in the soundtrack album for the 2000 Coen Brothers movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? The album earned him the first two of his three Grammy awards.
Ralph Edmund Stanley was born Feb. 25, 1927 in Stratton, Virginia, not far from the Kentucky border. He learned the basics of banjo picking from his mother and much of his intensely forlorn singing style from the Primitive Baptist Church his family attended. He and his 2-year-older brother, Carter, were also drawn to the high harmony, acoustic string band music of Grand Ole Opry titan Bill Monroe.
Both brothers were called into military service near the end of World War II. Carter was discharged first, and when Ralph returned home in 1946, the two began performing as the Stanley Brothers, first at radio station WNVA in Norton, Virginia, and soon after at the more powerful WCYB in Bristol, the border town that straddled the state line between Virginia and Tennessee. Over the next few years, the Stanleys starred in radio shows in Raleigh, North Carolina; Shreveport, Louisiana; Huntington, West Virginia and Versailles, Kentucky.
The Stanley Brothers began recording in 1947 on Rich-R-Tone Records. Those early sessions produced their first regional hit, “Little Glass of Wine.” From 1949 to 1952, they recorded for Columbia, where they created such classics as “The Fields Have Turned Brown” and “The White Dove.”
The Stanley Brothers produced some of their finest music during their 1953-1958 stay at Mercury Records, a period during which Ralph’s high tenor voice became increasingly prominent. The brothers’ only Billboard hit — the novelty “How Far to Little Rock” — came in 1960 when they were signed to King Records.
After Carter died in 1966, Ralph took command of the Clinch Mountain Boys and installed teenager Larry Sparks as the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist. In the years that followed, Stanley drafted into his band and mentored such major talents as Roy Lee Centers, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Charlie Sizemore and his son Ralph II.
Stanley toured and recorded relentlessly, often racking up as many as 250 concerts and two albums a year even in the twilight of his career. He not only became a favorite on the bluegrass festival circuit but also established his own annual Memorial Day gestival in 1970.
In 1976, Lincoln Memorial University awarded him an honorary doctoral degree. Henceforth, he began billing himself as “Dr. Ralph Stanley.” That title was undergirded substantially in 2014 when Yale University presented him an honorary doctorate in music.
President Ronald Reagan awarded Stanley a National Heritage Fellowship in 1984. In 1992, the Stanley Brothers were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Honor. The following year, the University of Illinois Press published a study of Stanley by John Wright called Traveling the High Way Home: Ralph Stanley and the World of Traditional Bluegrass Music.
In 2009, Stanley told his own story in the book Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times.
Stanley demonstrated his wide musical influence with the release in 1993 of the double-album, Saturday Night & Sunday Morning. The project featured him in duets with such friends and admirers as Bill Monroe, George Jones, Jimmy Martin, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Alison Krauss and Dwight Yoakam. Stanley repeated the all-star duet ploy again in 1998 with Clinch Mountain Country (which included a pairing with Bob Dylan) and in 2001 with Clinch Mountain Sweethearts.
With the release of the O Brother, Where Art There? film and soundtrack album in 2000, Stanley’s career skyrocketed. Earlier that same year, he had been installed as the first Grand Ole Opry member of the new millennium, but the soundtrack, which included his grim a cappella rendering of “Oh Death,” made Stanley a household name. It also earned him two Grammys, one for album of the year and the other for best male country vocal performance.
His third Grammy, this one for best bluegrass album, came in 2002 when he shared that honor with Jim Lauderdale and the Clinch Mountain Boys for Lost in the Lonesome Pines.
The National Folk Alliance presented Stanley its Lifetime Achievement award in 2003. In 2004, the town of Clintwood, Virginia, opened the Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Music Center. President George W. Bush presented the National Medal of Arts to Stanley in 2006.
The singer and banjoist was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2014 in a class that also included actor and director Al Pacino, novelists John Irving and Annie Proulx, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and oceanographer and discoverer of the Titanic, Robert Ballard.
Stanley is survived by his wife Jimmi and three children.