Bluegrass Legend Dr. Ralph Stanley Has Passed Away
Death could not spare another day.
Ralph Stanley, one of the last living legends in both the country and bluegrass world, has passed away. This was the word Thursday evening (6-23) from his grandson and protege Nathan Stanley.
“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,” Nathan said in a statement at approximately 7:10 p.m. Central time. “He went peacefully in his sleep due to a long, horrible battle with Skin Cancer … My Papaw was loved by millions of fans from all around the world, and he loved all of you. If he was singing and on stage, he was happy.“
Ralph Stanley began his career in 1946 with his older brother Carter, touring and recording as the Stanley Brothers before Carter’s death in 1966. Over the next 50 years, Ralph Stanley mentored the likes of Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley, his backing band the Clinch Mountain Boys was one of the most vital and prolific proving grounds for world-class bluegrass musicians, he won three Grammy Awards, was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry and the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, and was a recipient of the National Medal of Arts.
Possibly his most crowning achievement was his participation in the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack in 2000 that sold over 7 million copies and opened the gift of bluegrass to a whole new generation. Stanley’s contribution to that soundtrack was the old traditional song, “O Death.” Though a simple composition, the soul with which Stanley delivered its message is one of the most haunting music experiences ever recorded.
Ralph Edmond Stanley was born in the tiny town of McClure, Virginia in Dickenson County on February 25th, 1927. Stanley continued to live in the rural portion of Southwest Virginia for his entire life. His home life was not especially musical growing up, and he didn’t start playing the banjo until his mid teens when his mother bought a banjo from his aunt. He was taught the clawhammer style of banjo from his mother, but eventually developed his own playing style. After graduating from high school in 1945, Stanley joined the army for about a year. Upon his return to Virginia he immediately began performing with his brother Carter who was playing in another bluegrass band. The two brothers formed the Clinch Mountain Boys, which went on to become one of the most influential bluegrass bands in history.
Like many bluegrass outfits of the time, the Stanley Brothers were heavily influenced by Bill Monroe. But their adeptness with the minor key, instilled by their Primitive Baptist upbringing, gave them a unique singing style. Along with singing on radio station WCYB, they started writing their own bluegrass tunes in the late 40’s, and eventually signed to Columbia Records. It was the Stanley Brothers signing to Columbia that stimulated Bill Monroe to leave the label and sign with Decca. But the rivalry would not last long. Ralph’s brother Carter would ultimately go on to sing in Bill Monroe’s band.
Carter Stanley died in 1966 due to complications of cirrhosis, and initially Ralph did not know if he would continue performing. Carter was the primary songwriter for the duo, but due to the overwhelming support and interest of fans, Ralph decided to revitalize the Clinch Mountain Boys.
It was all doom and gloom and teary-eyed salutations when Dr. Ralph Stanley announced in June of 2013 that he would be embarking on his farewell tour in late 2013 into 2014. It was supposed to be the last time we would be able to see The Man of Constant Sorrow grace the bluegrass stage. But Stanley was always one to have restless bones, and even before the farewell tour began in earnest, he was already saying he wasn’t ready to retire. “I meant it at the time, but I’ve decided to leave it up to the good Lord.”
Stanley continued to tour, then in October of 2015 he suffered a fall that required surgery on a pelvic bone. Stanley’s performances began to taper off afterwards, but he still made public performances despite his advanced age.
Ralph Stanley was 89-years-old.
June 23, 2016 @ 6:28 pm
The Constant Sorrow will be no more, in the land where no cabins fall…
such a shame… he was an amazing performer. If ever anybody made greater contributions to Bluegrass than even Bill Monroe, it was Ralph Stanley…
Without him, we might never have gotten a single Keith Whitley or Ricky Skaggs album…
Do not be afraid to weep, for tears are only water.
June 28, 2016 @ 11:14 pm
The week I decide to take a break from SCM one of my heroes passes. From a fellow Virginian, may his soul rest in peace.
June 23, 2016 @ 6:30 pm
RIP to a certified legend.
June 23, 2016 @ 6:32 pm
June 23, 2016 @ 6:36 pm
And 2016 isn’t even half over yet.
RIP to a legend
June 23, 2016 @ 6:40 pm
“O Death, O Death, won’t you spare me over to another year?”
Rest in peace Dr.Stanley. He and Carter were my all time favorite bluegrass duo, now both are gone..
June 23, 2016 @ 6:40 pm
I’m so upset by this, and so happy I got to see him sing once.
June 23, 2016 @ 6:50 pm
RIP Dr. Stanley. 🙁
June 23, 2016 @ 6:58 pm
Just a heads up, I think some of your math is wrong. 50 years from ’66, and he was born in ’27.
Ralph Stanley was a huge influence on me, I absolutely love bluegrass. I was hoping to meet him someday, I don’t guess that dream will come true. Somebody better have a video camera on Willie at all times, record everything you can of that guy. Maybe the weed will keep him going a little longer… who knows.
June 23, 2016 @ 7:08 pm
I meant 70 years of performing total, but I understand where that was confusing. Fixed.
June 23, 2016 @ 6:58 pm
He was amazing. So glad I got to see him play. One of the most memorable performances I’ve seen to this day. RIP 🙁
June 23, 2016 @ 7:16 pm
There are so many deaths in showbusiness in the world this year, I can not keep tracks – too many leaving us, way too fast this year.
June 23, 2016 @ 7:21 pm
I was lucky enough to see him in concert once. He truly is a legend. Rest in peace, sir ….
June 23, 2016 @ 7:26 pm
R.I.P. Ralph Stanley you are a legend and now you are with your brother in heaven.
June 23, 2016 @ 7:54 pm
Of all the big names that have passed on this year, this is the hardest for me. Dr. Stanley was a legend.
I had the privilege to see him and the Clinch Mountain Boys play a few summers back at the Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh. Its an outdoor concert, with various artisans selling their wares around the venue. When He sang “Oh, Death” – a capella – you could hear a pin drop. Even on a 85-degree day, I had chills.
Saying prayers for his family and friends tonight.
June 23, 2016 @ 10:50 pm
You can say that Merle Haggard was the bigger star, but Ralph Stanley was one of the very originals of American old time string music. This is a devastating loss to the lineage that traces back to the very formation of country and bluegrass.
June 24, 2016 @ 4:38 am
Very true. I visited Ralph Stanley’s museum in southwest Virginia earlier this year. Great music can come from anywhere, but that region’s the birthplace for country and bluegrass music, and Dr Ralph was a special link to those roots.
June 23, 2016 @ 8:02 pm
I’m so glad I got to see him play at the Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival in Indiana a few years back. I vividly remember him playing The White Dove. R.I.P. Ralph.
June 24, 2016 @ 1:46 am
It’s so sad another great artist is gone.
June 24, 2016 @ 4:36 am
Ralph Stanley was the artist that got me into Bluegrass. He is one of the towering legends of American Roots music and we probably will never see the likes of him again. This year is turning into one morbid affair for music lovers as legend after legend dies.
June 24, 2016 @ 5:29 am
His influence cannot be overstated; we were blessed to have him as long as we did. Now he sings with the angels. Rest in peace, Dr. Stanley
June 24, 2016 @ 6:31 am
Just two days ago I sat in my truck and listened to “O Death”. Hadn’t heard it in a while and the song hit me a different strange way. RIP to Dr. Ralph Stanley.
Bigfoot is Real (lonesome, on'ry, and mean)
June 24, 2016 @ 6:59 am
I was fortunate enough to interview Dr. Stanley and was so very impressed how down to earth he was. What an wonderful life he had and thankfully we have his music to remember him by forever.
June 24, 2016 @ 7:12 am
The loss of Ralph Stanley is truly another sad reminder of how often our legendary musical figures have been leaving us this year, and how the bleeding probably isn’t going to stop since, at this point, we’re still not halfway through. He was truly an iconic figure. Perhaps the word “iconic” is one that gets a touch overused at other times, but, as with Merle Haggard, Dr. Stanley was indeed iconic.
What I think should also be noted is that, besides having mentored Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley, Stanley’s brand of bluegrass, and indeed all of bluegrass in general, got a real shot in the arm during the folk music revival (or “scare”, if you will) of the early 1960s, when young aspiring folk musicians began to delve into ultra-traditional forms like string-band, old-timey mountain music, and bluegrass. So Stanley’s influence was considerable, and went well beyond traditional bluegrass circles.
We indeed have lost another legend in Ralph Stanley. But his influence will always be there. He is now in heaven with the rest of the greats, country, bluegrass, and otherwise.
July 3, 2016 @ 6:25 am
Bob Dylan was just one of those young folk artists the Stanleys inspired.
June 24, 2016 @ 8:10 am
As a singer, Ralph Stanley was rare in that as his voice aged, the depth and soul didn’t diminish, but seemed to increase. The popularity of “Oh Death” proves that.
And that soul was always there. You could spin an old Stanley Bros record for somebody who thought they didn’t like Country or Bluegrass music and make a convert.
June 24, 2016 @ 8:26 am
You put he was born in 1957 and yet he was out playing with his brother in 1946. I looked on Wikipedia, says he was born in 1927.
June 24, 2016 @ 8:55 am
June 24, 2016 @ 11:14 am
June 24, 2016 @ 11:51 am
Each time a legend passes so to does a huge piece of important traditions too quickly vanishing .
Who’s gonna fill their shoes ? Who, indeed .
June 25, 2016 @ 3:55 am
So sad when our heroes leave us. Trigger, I wonder if you know anything about the health of ,
Bob Wootton, I have heard some sad stories but don’t want to believe them.