Friday, June 24, 2016

Bluegrass Patriarch Ralph Stanley Dead at 89

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. Plagued by declining health, he made his last stage appearance at the 2016 festival.

...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.

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