That voice. That haunting, ominous tenor of a voice is what defined Ralph Stanley. Whether he was singing a cappella or backed by the Clinch Mountain Boys, the bluegrass singer and banjo player, who died June 23rd at age 89, was able to induce chills in his listeners with just a few well-placed warbles. From the O Brother, Where Art Thou highlight "O Death" to his Velvet Underground cover, we look at Dr. Stanley's 10 best performances, both live and in the studio.Bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley died at age 89. Watch his remembrance here.
This stark ballad may have been around since time immemorial, but the traditional folk song about bargaining with death received new life when Ralph Stanley recorded it in 2000 for the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack. To call Stanley's version of "O Death" "haunting" is an understatement. Sung a cappella, it is the essence of ominous, delivered with a mix of gravitas and despair, which he summoned each and every time he performed it onstage, especially during O Brother's corresponding Down From the Mountain Tour in 2002. Listen, with chills.
The Stanley Brothers popularized this traditional folk tune with their 1950 recording, and it's been repurposed ever since — including as the centerpiece of the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack. But the Stanley Brothers' original and Ralph's solo version on The Marty Stuart Show above perfectly showcase the tremulous, lonesome mountain singing that was a signature of their sound and bluegrass for years to come.
As odd as it sounds to think about Ralph Stanley singing a Velvet Underground song, this recording — from the violent 2012 moonshiner film Lawless — suggests Dr. Ralph and Lou Reed could have gotten along just fine. With only an acoustic guitar backing him, a weathered but unbroken Stanley puts his own spin on Reed's poetry, by turns whimsical, proud and defiant like the family of hillbillies from the film.
Never has a murder ballad sounded so enticing. With bluegrass chanteuse Patty Loveless at his side, Ralph Stanley tells the tale of poor pretty Polly, who after rebuffing a suitor pays the ultimate price. For all his passion as a singer, Stanley betrays no emotion, singing stone-faced as he details the heinous act. The bluegrass patriarch is merely relaying a story — and it's impossible to not pay rapt attention.
Keith Whitley joined Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys band in the early Seventies, so credit Dr. Ralph with discovering one of country music's most heralded voices. While this performance may be mostly Whitley's vocals, the harmonies with Stanley are stunning, illustrating the bond the two men shared via both bluegrass and coal-country geography (Stanley was born in Virginia, Whitley in Kentucky). It's mentor and pupil at their best.
This Stanley Brothers recording goes way back — the original composition with music actually dates to 1862 — and was included on the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack in 2000. Emphasizing the brothers' ear for a good song, the meditation on the divine ensembles that play us out of this life and into the next will flatten everything in listening distance when the chorus harmonies kick in.
George Jones may have warned about the power of "White Lightning," but the Stanley Brothers heralded "that good ole mountain dew." Moonshine wasn't just a cottage industry in the hills of Appalachia, it was lifeblood. As such, it became a topic of many a folk song, including this one dating back to the Twenties. When covered by Ralph and Carter Stanley, however, it morphed from traditional ballad to bluegrass barn-burner.
Unlike "Pretty Polly," this tale of a spurned lover doesn't explicitly mention harming the titular Maggie for straying from him— he's mostly watching her drown her troubles with whiskey and dance with another man. But Stanley's grave, biting delivery gives it a chilling menace that suggests, yeah, it probably didn't turn out well.
So many traditional religious songs revolve around death and the reward waiting in the afterlife, and this one popularized by the Carter Family is one of the best known in the entire canon. Stanley's version makes good use of his banjo skills and soulful vocals, never attempting to outshine the song's perfect melody and unwavering faith in the face of sorrow.
Stanley was expert at murder ballads and songs about death, but he also excelled at praising God. His gospel catalog is vast, including original fare and traditionals alike. In "I Want to Preach the Gospel," he vows to be a steward of Jesus, trusting in Christianity's shepherd to watch over him and his fellow sheep. While Stanley sings the chorus with gusto, he also solemnly speaks of his commitment to his faith. Regardless of his listeners' own beliefs — or lack thereof — there's no denying his message here transfixes.