It is pretty difficult to tell the story of bluegrass music without mentioning Dr. Ralph Stanley. Known as one of the best bluegrass artists from the mid-1940s to his death in 2016, his voice and banjo playing always stood out. Here are some facts about Dr Ralph Stanley and his life story.
Stanley was born and raised in rural Virginia, but unlike a lot of musicians, he did not start really getting into any type of music until he was a teenager. He did not get his first banjo until he was a teenager, but shortly after receiving one, he became obsessed with learning the instrument.
He played the banjo clawhammer style, and continued to play through his high school and Army days. He only lasted around a year in the Army, and once he returned home, he began to perform for real for the first time in his life.
The Clinch Mountain Boys
Ralph’s older brother, Carter, was also a musician, and the two decided to join forced in 1946 to form a band called the Clinch Mountain Boys. They were extremely focused on keeping the music they played very area-centric, which helped them create a decent following in the Southwest Virginia area.
Originally a cover duo, the brothers began to write their own songs to really take the next step. Carter was the better writer of the two, but by writing their own songs, they became more marketable. The brothers would first officially sign with Columbia Records, but they also were with Mercury, Stardy and King as a duo.
The brothers had a strong, two decade career as a duo. They leaned towards gospel a lot of the time, carving out a unique niche in the bluegrass movement.
Tragedy Tears The Brothers Apart
The Stanley Brothers were a formidable duo, albeit for a brief time in the early 1950s when they broke up. It seemed that with Carter’s writing ability, and Ralph’s unique, mournful singing, the two could have decades of success. However, by 1966, Carter became ill. It would later be discovered that he had cirrhosis of the liver after years of heavy alcohol abuse. At just 41 years old, he passed away in December 1966, leaving Ralph alone.
No one was quite sure what would happen with Dr. Ralph Stanley after his brother’s death. He began to record for a lot of different labels, lending a hand to many other influential bluegrass artists around the United States. His voice and banjo playing style was still highly sought after by fans and other musicians looking for partnerships on songs.
Ralph particularly stayed very popular at bluegrass festivals, known for being one of the very best live performers around. He would always draw a sizable crowd, and every edition of the Clinch Mountain Boys he formed after Carter’s death still found a way to provide great performances each time out. In total, over 30 people would serve time as the Clinch Mountain Boys at some point from the 1960s until 2016.
Stanley started to be called “Dr. Ralph Stanley” after receiving an honorary doctorate from Lincoln Memorial University in 1976. By then, he was one of the truly iconic musicians in his genre. He was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor in 1992, and the Grand Ole Opry in 2000.
Despite being honored with awards usually reserved for retired musicians, he continued to stay active touring the country every single year until 2013. He announced his farewell tour at the time, although he would still not officially retire for his final few years.
By 2016, skin cancer really started to have an effect on his quality of life. By June of that year, Stanley passed away at the age of 89.
While he remains know as one of the true legends of bluegrass, perhaps his biggest legacy is his unique style. Even in a new genre of music, he played in a way that few others tried. His banjo playing was even referred to as “Stanley Style.”
He would play with a two-finger technique, using very fast forward rolls with a lead index finger. He would pick very close to the bridge of the banjo, giving it a unique tone that was a little bit more crisp than his contemporaries. At times, he would sound like one of the most technically sound banjo players around. Not bad for a musician who had a relatively late start to the game.
Stanley was one of the first true legends of bluegrass. His death was the end of an era for many, as he was one of the final active musicians from the very beginning still able to perform. The voice, the banjo style and his personality will not be forgotten any time soon when it comes to the unique style of music so many people enjoy.