Bluegrass music pioneer and banjoist Ralph Stanley died Thursday night at the age of 89. Stanley died at his home in Sandy Ridge, Virginia, where he was born and raised with seven other older step-siblings. He was battling with skin cancer when he passed away, and his death was confirmed by his grandson, Nathan Stanley, who wrote on his website.
He was the member of the Grand Ole Opry and the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. He received an honorary Doctorate degree of Music from Lincoln Memorial University in 1976 and Yale University in 2014. Because of this, he was popular with fans as “Doctor Ralph.”
After World War II, he and his brother continued work to form a band, and in 1946, they came up with Stanley Brothers and their Clinch Mountain Boys, who soon gained popularity playing crowds mostly in the Appalachian Mountains.
Their father’s early motivation was towards old traditional songs, and their mother taught them the old-time clawhammer style of banjo playing and fostered their love for the music. Two brothers were starting to build their career and were soon rising.
When Dr. Stanley came out of the Army in 1956, he and his older brother Carter began to perform and had a daily 15-minute slot on the radio station WNVA, sponsored by Clinch Valley insurance company. After this, they moved their way to WCYB in Bristol and became part of The Farm and Fun Time Show.
Ralph Stanley was born February 25, 1927, in Big Spraddle Creek in Dickenson Country, Virgina. When he was at a young age, his mother decided to let her choose between pig or banjo.
“Mother said she’d gave me one or other but I had to choose. So I took the banjo. Just as well I did,” he told the Washington Post.
His first public performance was in church when he just 11 years of age.
His older brother Carter played guitar, and the two brothers began performing at school and community gatherings and decided to try their career in music after graduation. They recorded their first songs for Rich-R-Tone Records in 1947.
Later, after all the hardships in their musical career, they made their recording for Mercury and are considered one of their best work to date. Some of the songs, including “I’m Lonesome Without You” and “Memories of Mother,” are bluegrass classics that are still heard at festivals and jam session today.
“You don’t replace a Ralph Stanley,” said Eric Gibson of the Gibson brothers. “His voice sounds like it has been here since time began.”
With his older brother Carter, the Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys enjoyed success with songs like “I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow” and “The Lonesome River”.
He single-handedly led the Clinch Mountains Boys for the next five decades, collaborating with singers like Larry Sparks, Roy Lee Centers, Charlie Sizemore, and even his son, Ralph Stanley II, at the end of his career.
When his brother died of liver disease in 1966 at the age of 41, Ralph decided not to continue his career and considered retirement thereafter, but later, he decided to rejoin following continue messages from fans all over the globe.
“I pulled myself up, and I made up my mind that music was all I could do, all I ever was meant to do, and I was going to do it,” he said in an autobiography Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times.
One of his greatest honor includes the National Medal of Arts, which he received from president George W. Bush in 2006. He was also named a Library of Congress Living Legend and even named fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science in 2014. He performed during the inauguration ceremony of President Carter and Clinton.
While suffering from a severe health condition, he persuaded to record and tour with his son, Ralph Stanley II, who later became his counterpart during the end of his career.
In his autobiography, Stanley once wrote that after he celebrated his 50th birthday, Bob Dylan sent him a telegram saying “You Live Forever.”
For his performance on “O Death,” he received a Grammy for the country’s best vocal in the male category, while the movie soundtrack Angel Band also received a 2001 Grammy Award for Album of the Year and has sold millions of copies.
[Photo by Steve Helber/AP Images]