Ralph Stanley, Bluegrass Defined

Posted: 5/30/2006 by Floyd in Labels:

Ralph Stanley at the age of 79 performs about 100 concerts a year, his a capella "O Death" from the "O Brother, Where art thou?" movie soundtrack introduced him to a new generation of fans. Ralph spoke at the Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center, a restored Victorian that once was the funeral home where his late brother and musical partner, Carter, was laid out 40 years ago. This is excerpts of that interview.
Ralph's father was a sawmill worker and his mother a homemaker, his mother bought him his first banjo when he was 11 or 12 years old. His brother Carter learned guitar from a mailman who delivered on horseback. The boys would wait for him to round the bend to teach them a new song. After serving in World War 2, they formed the Stanley Brothers and their Clinch Mountain Boys in 1946.
They would help define the music that would become known as bluegrass, The Stanleys created a three-part harmony that combined the lead vocal of Carter with Ralph's tenor and an even higher part sung by bandmate Pee Wee Lambert.
Carter died of liver disease in 1966, and Ralph wasn't sure he could continue,his brother had been the main songwriter, but after his brother's passing he received many letters and telegrams from his fans urging him not to quit. After Carter's death, Ralph drew even deeper from his Appalachian roots, adopting the a cappella singing style of the Primitive Baptist Church where he grew up.
Rock icons Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia praised his work and, in the case of Dylan, joined him for a remake of the Stanley Brothers "Lomesome River" in 1997.
Ralph's latest recording is due out next week a tribute to the Carter family, Ralph has also had a triple by-pass surgery but it don't slow him down, he says, "I would hate to retire completely, but if I had my way I would like to maybe slow down to 20 shows a year, but that's in the good lord's hands. I'll quit when he says so." Ralph was born about 12 miles from Clintwood VA. And grew up in the area, in 1970 he arrived late for a show in West Virginia abd heard Stanley Brothers music coming from the hall, and figured that they had been playing some of his records. He discovered soon enough it was two young boys named Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs and was a duplicate of the Stanley Brothers. They told him if he could ever help them out any in the business they would appreciate it very much, 'so I hired them and took them on.'
He won a Grammy for best male vocal performance in 2002, beating out Tim McGraw, Ryan Adams, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Lyle Lovett and was the focus of a successful tour and documentary inspired by the soundtrack O Brother Where Art Thou. Stanley holds an honorary doctorate of music from Lincoln Memorial University in, Harrogate Tenn. He comes here almost every year it is located about 48 miles North of Knoxville.
When I was a child I grew up listening to The Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe, I saw Bill in person in Nashville but have not met Ralph although I would like to some day. Last year I missed him when he came to LMU to perform but maybe this year I will get to meet him, if you like banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and guitar music you could listen to Ralph sing and play and boy can he play and I hope he is around for many years to come.