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.