Bluegrass pioneer Dr Ralph Stanley died last Thursday June 23, after a battle with skin cancer. He was 89 years old.
Along with Flatt & Scruggs, his brother Carter and Bill Monroe, Stanley helped to create the distinctive sounds of the bluegrass genre. Stanley’s high, lonesome singing, virtuoso clawhammer banjo picking and vast repertoire had a tremendous influence on bluegrass, folk, country and gospel. Though he didn’t write them, Stanley’s renditions of old-timey tunes ‘Little Maggie,’ ‘Pretty Polly,’ ‘O Death,’ ‘Angel Band’ and ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ (re-popularised by the film O Brother Where Are Thou) made them standards in the American songbook.
“He went peacefully in his sleep due to a long, horrible battle with skin cancer,” musician Nathan Stanley, the musician’s grandson, announced on his website on Thursday.
Stanley was born and raised in southwest Virginia, where he and his brother Carter were taught clawhammer style banjo by their mother, according to a biography released by his publicist Kurt Webster.
Heavily influenced by Grand Ole Opry star Bill Monroe, the brothers fused Monroe’s rapid rhythms with the mountain folk songs from groups such as the Carter Family, who hailed from this same rocky corner of Virginia.
The Stanley Brothers popularised ‘Man of Constant Sorrow,’ which was later recorded by Bob Dylan, and toured the country playing folk and bluegrass festivals during the 1960s.
Ralph continued to tour and record after his brother’s death in 1966, drawing from his Appalachian roots. He teamed up with Ray Cline, Larry Sparks and Melvin Goins to reform an early band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, and went on to record an early Stanley Brothers song with Dylan in 1997.
He performed at the inaugurations of presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and was awarded a “Living Legends” medal from the Library of Congress and a National Medal of Arts presented by George W. Bush.
He was 73 when he was introduced to a new generation of fans through the soundtrack of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The song ‘O Death,’ won him the Grammy Award in 2002 for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.