Dr. Ralph Stanley, one of the key figures who helped establish and develop bluegrass has died at the age of 89. His family revealed that he had been fighting an ongoing battle with skin cancer and died peacefully in his sleep. His grandson Nathan Stanley posted this 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 went peacefully in his sleep due to a long, horrible battle with Skin Cancer. I feel so lost and so alone right now. He was my world, and he was my everything. He was always there for me no matter what. I just cannot get a grip on this. My Papaw was loved by millions of fans from all around the world, and he loved all of you…”
After receiving his first banjo in his late teens Stanley was taught the clawhammer style of playing by his mother. It was after returning home from a year spent in the army that he began performing in 1946 with his brother Carter – although his first public performance with his brother’s band (Roy Sykes and the Blue Ridge Mountain Boys) took place before his feet had even touched the doormat as they headed off to a radio station where he sang with his brother’s band.
Stanley and his older brother soon began performing as a duo called The Clinch Mountain Boys, although initially influenced by the Bill Monroe’s style of playing they went on to develop a very individual style referred to as the Clinch Mountain sound. Unlike a lot bluegrass players Stanley would often remove the steel fingerpicks to play the less flashy and more natural sounding clawhammer style associated with mountain music and that taught by his mother. Stanley went onto pursue a solo career although he revived The Clinch Mountain Boys following his brother’s death in 1966.
Many people around the world who were not exposed to that high lonesome sound which Stanley became well known for would soon become more aware of his existence after he was asked to sing on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? He performed the Appalachian dirge O’ Death, a traditional song that was recorded by Dock Boggs in the late 1920s. The soundtrack was produced by T-Bone Burnett with help from Gillian Welch and it went on to achieve multi-platinum status bringing a huge resurgence of interest in old-time music in its wake.
Whilst he’ll be missed he has left a strong musical legacy that lives on.
Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mt Boys – April 18, 1983
Ralph Edmund Stanley (February 25, 1927 – June 23, 2016)