Bluegrass Legend Ralph Stanley

American Icons, Featured Article, People
on March 12, 2012
Bryan Leazenby

Ralph Stanley, 84, takes the stage at the Jerusalem Ridge Bluegrass Festival on a cool September night in Rosine, Ky. (pop. 113). His band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, begin picking their instruments as Stanley steps to the microphone to sing “Man of Constant Sorrow,” one of his signature songs.

Although he’s small in physical stature, his earnest tenor envelops the crowd with a sound as ageless as the Appalachian hills where his old-time music was born.

Stanley has no predetermined song list despite having a repertoire of hundreds of songs, ranging from the banjo-driven “Pretty Polly” to the a cappella gospel tune “Gloryland.” Instead, he sings from the heart and chooses “whatever comes to my mind” as he’s done for most of his six-decade career.

Jerusalem Ridge is an ideal setting for Stanley to perform, with the stage located within view of the boyhood home of Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass. “It’s special,” says Stanley, who sang at Monroe’s funeral in 1996. “We were good friends. It’s always good to come to where he was raised.”

Like Monroe, Stanley is one of the architects of bluegrass music. Raised in southwestern Virginia among the Clinch Mountains, not far from where he lives today in Coeburn, Va. (pop. 2,139), Stanley made his singing debut as a bashful boy in a one-room country church. It’s a memory so strong that he begins his 2009 autobiography, Man of Constant Sorrow: The Life and Times of a Music Legend, recalling the day his father put him on the spot by asking him to lead the congregation in song. “I couldn’t even look up I was so scared, just a-trembling from head to toe,” Stanley recalls.

Fortunately for fans the world over, that first performance was a success, and served as a lifelong inspiration. “It’s helped me a lot in my life because I’ve been scared many a time since that Sunday morning and I’ve never let it stop me,” he says.

Music was ever present in the Stanley home, where his father often sang on the porch after work and his mother taught him to play banjo. With his parents’ encouragement, he partnered with older brother, Carter, and began performing professionally in 1946, following a short stint in the U.S. Army. With Ralph on banjo and Carter on guitar, the two billed themselves as The Stanley Brothers and became one of the most celebrated bluegrass groups in the world.

In 1966, Carter died of liver failure and Stanley shifted his music from hard-driving bluegrass to an older, more lonesome style. “I still miss Carter,” Stanley says. “I wish he could have been with me to enjoy the successes.”

Stanley’s achievements are many. Since 2000, he’s been inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, earned the Living Legend Award from the Library of Congress, and won three Grammy awards. In 1976, Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn. (pop. 4,389), awarded him an honorary doctorate in music, earning him the title Dr. Stanley.

His career was revitalized in 2000 with release of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and its 7-million-selling soundtrack, which featured his haunting a cappella version of “O Death.” The song won him a Grammy award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 2002, along with scores of new fans.

O Brother, that just doubled my career,” he says. “I played bigger places and it increased my reach to people. That’s when I started to see a lot more younger people out in the crowd.”

Now in his 66th year of making “old-timey mountain music,” as he likes to call it, the crowds keep returning to hear the timeless tenor.

“He’s always going to be remembered as one of the greats,” says James Shelton, 51, lead guitarist for the Clinch Mountain Boys. “He’ll always be revered as one of the pioneers of bluegrass music.”

The plainspoken Stanley sees his legacy more humbly. “I just want to be remembered as a man that was honest in what he was a doin’,” says Stanley, who performs more than 100 shows each year. “A man that never got above the people and appreciated everything the people have done for me. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be doin’ this.”