Quietus: Dr. Ralph Stanley

Emma Connolly

Emma Connolly

Emma lives in England. Ace the dog keeps her feet and heart warm while she writes about music and culture.
Emma Connolly

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February 25, 1927 – June 23, 2016

Born in Big Spraddle, Virginia, USA, banjo player and vocalist Ralph Stanley formed the Clinch Mountain Boys with his older brother Carter in 1946. They became a successful act with regular radio shows and recorded their melancholy style of mountain music with Columbia Records. In the 1950s, the brothers signed to King Records, becoming stablemates of James Brown, who was in the studio when they recorded the song “Finger Poppin’ Time”.

Dr Ralph Stanley

Photo Credit: Larry Miller from Grass Valley, USA

In 1966, Carter Stanley died. Ralph took the difficult decision to continue performing and recording, and eventually revived the Clinch Mountain Boys – which at one point included both Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitely amongst its members.

In 2002 Ralph Stanley received his first Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance with the spine-tingling “Oh Death” that featured in the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers film “O Brother Where Art Thou”. In 2006 He received the Living Legend Award from the Library of Congress and the National Medal of Arts given by President George W. Bush. He continued to perform until his farewell tour in 2014, making appearances at festivals such as Muddy Roots where crowds mainly far too young to remember his original career paid emotional homage to an original hero of American music.

Ralph Stanley final album

In 2011, Ralph Stanley released his final album, A Mother’s Prayer, a newly recorded collection of hymns and spirituals. As well as some new compositions, Stanley recorded ballads and church music from his youth. “The autumnal recordings of Ralph Stanley are among the last links to the fierce confrontationalism of true Appalachian music,” observed Colin Escott in the liner notes. “The music, like the people, stood square-jawed in the face of adversity. You can hear the pain in every ghostly trailing note and struggle in every barbed syllable.”

Sadly, this week Dr. Ralph Stanley’s website made the following announcement: “Ralph Stanley, a patriarch of Appalachian music who with his brother Carter helped expand and popularize the genre that became known as bluegrass, died Thursday from difficulties with skin cancer. He was 89.”