A singer and musician who was a pioneer and elder statesman of bluegrass music has died. Ralph Stanley died Thursday at age 89 after battling skin cancer.
Stanley’s official website announced his death.
Stanley was a patriarch of Appalachian music, helping to popularize the genre that evolved into bluegrass through 20 years of performances with his brother Carter. Ralph and Carter Stanley began touring as the Stanley Brothers and their Clinch Mountain Boys in 1946.
Carter Stanley, who was the group’s main songwriter, lead singer and frontman, died of liver disease in 1966, but Ralph Stanley kept the band going. Over the next several decades his uncompromising “high lonesome” vocals became one of the defining sounds of the bluegrass genre, and well into the 21st century the Clinch Mountain Boys, featuring Stanley’s virtuoso clawhammer banjo picking, were still going strong.
“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 was raised,” his website notes. “He reformed the Clinch Mountain Boys band to include Ray Cline, vocalist Larry Sparks and Melvin Goins. He would change the lineup of the band over the years, later including Jack Cooke, and mentored younger artists like Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs, who also performed with him.”
In his later years, Ralph Stanley became a part of a resurgence for bluegrass music that was sparked by the popularity of the 2000 Coen Brothers movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Stanley’s signature a cappella rendition of “O Death” was featured in the film and on the movie’s soundtrack album, which topped the Billboard 200 chart and sold millions of copies.
“He won a Grammy for best male country 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,” his website notes. “The soundtrack, produced by T Bone Burnett, also won a Grammy for album of the year.”
Ralph Stanley won another Grammy the following year, for best bluegrass album for “Lost in the Lonesome Pines,” a collaboration with Jim Lauderdale.
Below is a clip featuring Stanley performing just one year ago, singing “Rank Stranger” at the Huck Finn Jubilee in California as part of a lineup that includes banjo legend Bela Fleck and young bluegrass star Sierra Hull …