How Ralph Stanley Overcame Tragedy and the Persistence of Time to Change Country Music
A look back at the Virginia legend, whose influence on country and bluegrass will continue for generations.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
The bluegrass icon, who died Thursday night, started singing because his parents did, and then because his father prompted him, at age 8, to lead the group singing in their Primitive Baptist church in southwest Virginia. When he and his brother started playing music as the Stanley Brothers in 1946, Ralph was the quieter of the two, deferring to his older, charismatic brother Carter, who embraced frontman duties. When Carter died in 1966, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if the shy Ralph stopped performing music.
Yet he kept playing, as much out of habit as anything, and over the following decades, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys became a pillar of the bluegrass movement started by Kentuckian Bill Monroe. The genre saw its ups and downs: In the mid-60s, Bob Dylan’s shift away from folk to rock music killed its chances to go mainstream, but during the same time, fans began organizing bluegrass festivals that kept it commercially viable for touring artists. Neither Stanley nor Monroe was featured on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 old-time opus “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which revived the careers of guests such as Doc Watson while also inspiring the burgeoning alt-country movement.
Bluegrass also became intertwined with popular country music, influencing stars of the ’80s such as Dolly Parton and Ricky Skaggs, whom he mentored.
Monroe died in 1996, so when old-time and bluegrass music finally did get its mainstream moment in the soundtrack of the 2000 Coen Brothers movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, Stanley was recognized as the genre’s reigning godfather. His mournful tenor was placed in the mouth of a Ku Klux Klan member singing “O Death” in a pivotal scene, while “Man of Constant Sorrow,” a song that Stanley popularized, became the movie’s recurring theme and an unlikely pop hit as well.
Thanks to the soundtrack’s impact, Stanley’s fame and influence outgrew its bluegrass roots. As country music has ebbed and flowed, strayed from and returned to its roots, Ralph Stanley kept doing what he’d been doing for nearly 70 years. In doing so he became bluegrass’s biggest star, surpassing even genre creator Bill Monroe, while also transcending it to become an Appalachian cultural icon.
“When I was just a little boy growing up in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, singing was as natural as breathing,” Stanley wrote in his 2009 autobiography, “Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times.”
Ralph started singing with his older brother Carter when their mother taught them old, haunting Appalachian ballads. When he entered the U.S. Army, his banjo prowess resulted in a rapid rise through the ranks. After he was discharged, he reunited with Carter to form the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, who debuted on the radio in late 1946.
The Stanley Brothers, who followed in a long tradition of brother-based string-music acts, rose to prominence by incorporating the bluegrass stylings Monroe—who often accused the Stanleys, among others, of stealing his music—into a vocal style influenced by the Primitive Baptist church. Ralph was the quieter of the two brothers, overshadowed by Carter’s stage charisma. As time went on, however, Carter fell into alcoholism, eventually succumbing in 1966 to cirrhosis of the liver.
Carter’s death devastated Ralph.
"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 said in a 2006 interview with the Associated Press.
His brother’s absence haunted him for years to come.
“It’s been so long since Carter passed away,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I haven’t talked much about it, or even tried to think much about it. It hurt too much to remember, so I tried to let it go to the past.”
Ralph's luck with singers in his post-Stanley Brothers band was spotty, too: One was shot to death, and another later died of alcohol poisoning. Death comes up repeatedly in Stanley’s book, even when he wrote about where his house is located in Dickenson County, Virginia.
“I live eight miles from where I was born, and five miles the way the crow flies from where I’ll be buried, up on Smith Ridge, where my mother Lucy and my brother Carter are waiting on me,” Stanley wrote. But, he added, “I’m not ready to go just yet, not by a long shot, not as long as I can sing.”
Ralph Stanley kept performing after Carter’s death because it’s what he’d always done. He surrounded himself with whipsmart musicians who had big stage personalities that offset his shyness. Stanley’s bands developed a reputation for hard-driving fast songs and mournful slow ones. Beginning with “Old Time Music,” released less than a year after Carter’s death, Ralph Stanley drew deeply from the well of traditional mountain songs. He performed newer material, too, but it was played in that old-time style. During a time when the three-fingered banjo style popularized by Earl Scruggs felt ubiquitous, Stanley played the older “clawhammer” style.
He hired lead singers to offset his tenor, but it’s the songs showcasing Stanley’s voice that made him a legend.
His voice “was lonesome and mournful, and it wasn’t like anyone else’s,” Stanley wrote. “I don’t say this to brag on myself, but because it’s true … I think God gives everyone a gift, and he wants them to use it. I’ve always done my best to honor what God gave me. I’ve never tried to put any airs on it. I sing it the way I feel it, just the way it comes out.”
That voice left a stamp on some of country music’s most memorable songs, from “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which he learned from his father, to “Pretty Polly” and “Rank Stranger.” His a capella performances were even more haunting.
When I saw Stanley play a campaign rally for a Virginia state house candidate in 2005, he sang “O Death” unaccompanied. My hair stood up on end as he gazed out over the crowd, and it seemed to me he could see the specter of death standing in the back of the room, and was staring him down as he intoned the verses. It’s no coincidence he won a Grammy in 2002 for his performance of the song on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, beating Tim McGraw, Ryan Adams, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Lyle Lovett.
Stanley was no stranger to politics. He performed at the inaugurations of presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, as well as countless campaign rallies. In 2012, when the Appalachian mountains in which he’d grown up had shifted from reliably Democratic to solid red Republican, Stanley recorded a minute-long ad for Barack Obama, aimed at winning his neighbors over to the president’s re-election campaign. (Stanley’s grandson, the “Prince of Bluegrass” Nathan Stanley, has endorsed Donald Trump this election.)
Stanley wrote in 2009, “When Carter and I first started out, we never thought our music would get past the 3 or 4 states around our home.”
By the time of his death on Thursday night, however, Stanley’s music didn’t just transcend the mountains of Appalachia; it touched an international audience and left a lasting impact on country and popular music.
Now, at long last, Ralph Stanley is finally headed back to that southwest Virginia mountain ridge to be with his mother and brother.
Find Mason Adams a rank stranger on Twitter at @MasonAtoms.