Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley died on Thursday, June 23, after a battle with skin cancer. He was 89.
The artist was often referred to as Dr. Ralph Stanley because of an honorary degree he received in 1976 from Tennessee’s Lincoln Memorial University. He was later awarded an honorary doctorate of music from Yale in 2014.
Stanley was born on Feb. 25, 1927, in McClure, Virginia — in the rural southwest corner of the state. He learned the banjo with help from his mother, Lucy, who taught Ralph and his brother Carter Stanley how to play in what was called the “clawhammer,” style, where the players strike downward at the strings.
Stanley served in the U.S. Army during World War II and after being discharged in 1946, he and his brother launched their band the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Together from 1946-1966, the Stanley Brothers received a popularity boost when they linked to the folk movement sweeping the U.S. They performed at major folk and bluegrass festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival in both 1959 and 1964. They started recording in 1947 for the Rich-R-Tone label; 13 years later, they scored their lone hit on the country singles chart with “How Far to Little Rock.”
After Carter Stanley died in 1966 from liver disease, Stanley continued, but not without hesitation: “Within weeks of his passing, I got phone calls and letters and telegrams and they all said ‘don’t quit.’ They said, ‘We’ve always been behind you and Carter, but now we’ll be behind you even more because we know you’ll need us,” Stanley told the Associated Press in 2006.
Later in life, at age 73, Stanley was featured on the T Bone Burnett produced soundtrack from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? on the a cappella track “O Death” (the soundtrack also included a cover of the gospel song “Angel Song” from his old band, the Stanley Brothers). The soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film topped the Billboard 200 and Top Country Albums charts, and Stanley won a Grammy award for his performance.
On Billboard’s Bluegrass Albums chart, launched in 2002, Stanley had 13 appearances; including 10 top 10 LPs and one No. 1, his 2015 album Ralph Stanley and Friends: Man of Constant Sorrow, released through Cracker Barrel stores. The album featured duets with many artists, inspired by Stanley, including Dierks Bentley, Lee Ann Womack, Robert Plant, Elvis Costello and Ricky Skaggs.
Stanley was also featured on Josh Turner’s 2007 single, “Me and God,” which peaked at No. 16 on Hot Country Songs.
In 1992 Stanley was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. In 2000, he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry.
Stanley is survived by his wife Jimmie Stanley and his children Lisa Stanley Marshall, Tonya Armes Stanley and Ralph Stanley II.