Ralph Stanley obituary: bluegrass’s humble mountain king

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The bluegrass pioneer has died at 89, after inspiring Bob Dylan, mentoring a generation of musicians and making a comeback in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Ralph Stanley, the last of the first-generation of bluegrass bandleaders, died on Tuesday of skin cancer. He was 89.

His life represented just how far bluegrass had traveled, from its formidable days in the 1940s of the mountain region of the upland south to today, where core elements of the music are heard everywhere. Throughout his seven decades as a working musician, Stanley survived downturns in the industry not once, but many times, each time returning stronger and primed to introduce the music to new ears. As the eternal leader of the Clinch Mountain Boys a revolving group that in different incarnations included Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs he trained two generations of musicians to carry the music forward. His tenor voice is remembered as the last of its kind unvarnished, solitary, searching.

I call him the king of mountain soul, there was something so moving about his voice. It was ancient and mysterious-sounding. At the same time during a show he could veer off into something that was very joyful and uplifting and fun, says Jim Lauderdale, who recorded and produced Stanley, sharing a Grammy with him in 2002 for Lost in the Lonesome Pines, a collaborative album.

He just had that indefinable quality about him that just really made people feel and allowed them to go through that wide range of emotions. As a listener that is pretty rare in the history of music. Only the greats have that quality, he says.

Stanley was born 25 February 1927 in Dickenson County, Virginia. Tucked in the south-west region of the state, the area was dominated by coal mines and deep forests. His mother, who played banjo, taught him the traditional clawhammer style of playing, which requires the player to strike their fingers downward in rhythm.

I learned the finger three-finger roll, but I didnt want to sound like anybody. I wanted it to be my style, he told this writer in 2014.

He and Carter Stanley, his brother, formed the Stanley Brothers in 1946 and accelerated the style of bluegrass already developed by Bill Monroe breakneck rhythms, impeccably timed arrangements, close harmonies in high registers, and almost jazz-like improvisational breaks. The term bluegrass hadnt even been invented by the time they secured their first record contract, with Columbia Records in 1948. The Stanley Brothers introduced three-part harmony singing, aided by mandolin player Darrell Pee Wee Lambert, who remains the only surviving member of the group.

The sound brought a haunting quality to the music that would define the genre. Songs like The White Dove, The Lonesome River, The Wandering Boy, and Death is Only a Dream were example of songs that used simple images, but elicited deep emotions through the interlocking harmonies. The group also popularized traditional folk songs like Pretty Polly, Little Maggie, and Im a Man of Constant Sorrow, introducing them to a younger generation of folk singers in the late 1950s and 1960s like Bob Dylan. During this period the Stanley Brothers are also credited for being the first bluegrass group to give prominence to the lead guitar.

Over their first two decades, the Stanleys recorded for Columbia, Mercury and even King Records, an early home to James Brown. In fact, it is Browns finger-snaps that are heard on the Stanley Brothers song Finger Poppin Time in 1960. By then, rocknroll had done damage to the bluegrass market. Musicians like Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers had discovered a new audience on the college circuit where they found eager fans at the Newport folk festival and University of Chicago folk festival, among others.

Carter Stanley died unexpectedly of liver disease in 1966 at age 41, leaving his brother at a crossroads. Carter was the bandleader and dominant presence in the band. He was also the primary lyricist. By contrast, Ralph was shy and soft-spoken. My brother did most of the emcee work and publicity and all of the talking, Stanley said in 2014. I had to get used to that. Ive done my best.

Under Ralphs direction, the Clinch Mountain Boys emphasized sacred music and songs from his early Appalachian roots. He also brought in younger players to mentor. In a statement, Skaggs called Stanley his hero and a kind and humble king from the mountains.

I was blessed to know him, love him and make music with him as a young teenager, he said. He carried the ancient sounds from God knows where. Ralph found it in the music of the mountains, in the hollows, in the people and in the churches.

Ralph
Ralph Stanley: He carried the ancient sounds from God knows where. Photograph: Michal Czerwonka/EPA

By the 1990s, bluegrass would once again fall dormant, but its revival was sparked from an unlikely source: The 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? by the Coen Brothers, with a soundtrack that featured Stanley in a prominent role. A revival was soon underway and the Down from the Mountain tour, featuring musicians from the film and others, played to packed theaters. At age 73, Stanley was suddenly bigger than ever. He earned his first Grammy, and the soundtrack album topped the Billboard 200 chart, selling millions of copies. He would later say he watched the film six times. I liked that movie and it helped me a lot getting better known to new fans, he said.

Stanley closed every night of the tour with O Death, a traditional ballad that served as a conversation with God, asking for more time on earth to do good. Oh Death please consider my age/Please dont take me at this stage, he sang. Wont you spare me over til another year?

Stanley had 16 more years where he played about 100 dates a year and collaborated with a long list of admirers, some within his field like Del McCoury and grandson Nathan Stanley, and many not, like Elvis Costello and Robert Plant. Many others, including Bob Dylan, George Jones, Vince Gill, Randy Owen, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Dolly Parton, Ricky Skaggs, Joan Baez, Pam Tillis and Porter Wagoner, sought him out for duets.

Shy from an early age, the attention was something he had to learn how to handle which he did. After performances, it was common for him to appear in the lobby afterwards to meet fans and sign autographs. He also became a regular face at the White House, where he performed for a succession of US presidents. He slowly became comfortable in that position to where he could be a master showman, Lauderdale said.

Yet all this time, Stanley never moved to Nashville or anywhere else. He lived in Sandy Ridge, Virginia, only a few miles from his childhood farm. Even there, he invited fans to come to him through a traditional mountain music center he operated and an annual festival.

I had planned to retire after this year, but I feel good, about as good as ever, he said in 2014. And when Im feeling good, which I always have, I enjoy singing.

  • Stanley is survived by Jimmie Stanley, his wife. They expected to celebrate their 48th wedding anniversary on 2 July. They had three children. A memorial service is pending.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jun/24/ralph-stanley-obituary-bluegrasss-musician