Ralph Stanley, a pioneer of bluegrass and Appalachian music, died today, June 23rd, following a battle with skin cancer. He was 89.
His grandson Nathan Stanley, who had been touring with the banjo legend in recent years, confirmed the news on Facebook. “My heart is broken into pieces. My papaw, my dad, and the greatest man in the world, Dr. Ralph Stanley has went home to be with Jesus just a few minutes ago,” he wrote, adding, “My Papaw was loved by millions of fans from all around the world, and he loved all of you. If he was singing and on stage, he was happy.”
Born on February 25th, 1927, in Stratton, Virginia, Ralph Edmund Stanley teamed up with his guitar-playing sibling Carter in 1946 and began incorporating the folk traditions of the region and Carter Family-style harmonies into their duo the Stanley Brothers and their backing band the Clinch Mountain Boys. Initially the Stanley Brothers performed live on radio stations in Virginia and sang Bill Monroe’s songs, but began writing and arranging their own material and recorded sessions for Columbia, Mercury and King Records that established them as key figures in the early growth of traditional bluegrass music. Their 1951 recording of the traditional song “Man of Constant Sorrow” has been adapted and re-adapted numerous times in the following years and they found favor with the folk movement of the Sixties. Sadly, Carter died in 1966 at 41 years old, and Ralph was forced to carry on as a solo artist.
Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys remained a popular fixture at bluegrass festivals for another 50 years, and the band was an incubator for country and bluegrass talent with members including — at various points — Larry Sparks, Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs.
In 1976, Stanley was awarded an honorary doctorate of music from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee — hence his usual “Dr.” prefix. He also performed at the inaugurations of presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and was given a National Medal of Arts and a Living Legends medal from the Library of Congress. Amazingly, he didn’t join the Grand Ole Opry until 2000.
That same year, his music found an entirely new audience when he performed on the hit soundtrack for the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou. That multi-million selection included an updated version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” (performed by Union Station’s Dan Tyminski) and Stanley’s a capella rendition of “O Death.” The latter won a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 2002, beating out Tim McGraw, Lyle Lovett, Ryan Adams, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. The soundtrack proved to be an influential touchstone for the growth and rise of Americana music, which is steadily growing in profile and popularity. Stanley also appeared on the Lawless soundtrack in 2012, singing a bluegrass version of the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat.”
In spite of the advances of age and poor health, Stanley continued touring into his 80s, backed by family members like his son Ralph Stanley II and grandson Nathan. He is survived by his wife Jimmie, three children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending.