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1992 Inductee – Ralph Edmond Stanley

RalphStanley
Born: February 25, 1927, Big Spraddle Creek, Dickenson County, VA
Instrument: Banjo

My mother used to pick the banjo… I call it the clawhammer. Actually drop thumb is what she did…. She told me she played all night a many of a night for square dances…. I was about 12 when I first picked up the banjo.”
-“The Ralph Stanley Story: An Interview with Fred Bartenstein,” Muleskinner News, March, 1972.

Composed

More than 200 songs and instrumentals, some co-written with Carter Stanley and others

“Big Tilda”
“The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn”
“A Few More Seasons”
“Going Up Home To Live in Green Pastures”
“Hard Times”
“I’m Lonesome Without You”
“I’m Lost, I’ll Never Find the Way”
“Let Me Love You One More Time”
“Wonderful World Outside”

“I wrote 20 or so banjo tunes, but Carter was a better writer than me.”
-Old-Time Man” interview by Don Harrison, Virginia Living, June, 2008.

Early influences

Lucy Smith Stanley (mother)
Primitive Baptist Universalist Church
“Fiddling” Arthur Smith
J.E. and Wade Mainer
Snuffy and Hoke Jenkins
Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys
Earl Scruggs

Came to fame with

The Stanley Brothers, 1946-1966

“When I got out of the army I was a’gonna train for a veterinary – what I had in mind to. Decided different. Carter mostly decided for me.”
-“The Ralph Stanley Story: An Interview with Fred Bartenstein,” Muleskinner News, March, 1972.

Performed with

The Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, 1946-1966
Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, 1967-present

Led the way

Co-led the second band to achieve commercial success playing the new (and as yet unnamed) style of bluegrass
A major contributor to the “mountain” and “lonesome” sounds of bluegrass
Instrumental Group of the Year, Nashville Disc Jockey’s Convention, 1955
First bluegrass band to play the prestigious Newport Folk Festival, in 1959
First bluegrass act to record a cappella gospel hymns, 1971
Honorary doctorate in Music, Lincoln Memorial University, Harrogate, Tennessee, 1976
Bluegrass Hall of Fame, 1992
Grand Ole Opry member, 2000-present
National Heritage Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 1984
“Living Legend” award, Library of Congress, 2000

By the Way

As a child, was too bashful to sing and play in front of others. Performed in the kitchen for neighbors sitting in the living room.
Dry sense of humor and a practical joker. Once sent a novice sideman to fire his brother Carter from the Stanley Brothers.
Filled in with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys briefly after banjoist Rudy Lyle was drafted. A bad auto wreck in 1951 sidelined his career until the Stanley Brothers reunited.
Active in regional Democratic politics. Ran unsuccessfully for Clerk of Courts and Commissioner of Revenue in Dickenson County, Virginia, 1970. Served on the Dickenson County School Board. Recorded a radio spot for the Obama campaign, 2008.
Honorary chairman of the International Bluegrass Music Museum’s initial campaign, “Building on a Legacy,” 1994.
Nationally lionized in the wake of the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou” (2000) and the “Down From the Mountain Tour” (2001-2002), but continued to live and drive a Jaguar on mountain roads near his remote childhood home.

For additional early history, from childhood through the Stanley Brothers and 1966, see the profile of Carter Stanley.

After graduating from high school in May of 1945 at the age of 18, Ralph Stanley was inducted into the army. He served a year with the occupation forces in Germany. His administrative talents were recognized there and he was urged to reenlist but decided instead to study veterinary medicine. As he arrived home, Ralph was taken by his father directly from the railroad station to a radio broadcast in Norton, Virginia, where he performed with his brother and Roy Sykes and the Virginia Mountain Boys. Carter Stanley and Pee Wee Lambert soon left that band to form the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys.

Ralph began playing banjo in a two-finger style reminiscent of Wade Mainer. He heard the emerging three-finger style from Snuffy and Hoke Jenkins, and adapted a distinctive variant in 1948, while both the Stanley Brothers and Flatt and Scruggs were appearing on WCYB, Bristol.

Ten years of regional stardom followed, centered on WCYB radio’s daily “Farm and Fun Time” radio program. The Stanley Brothers were picked up by national labels Columbia, and Mercury, but found themselves unable to break out of performance circuits where bluegrass was most accepted: North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia; and areas where Appalachians migrated for employment in Ohio, Michigan, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

1958 brought major changes in the Stanleys’ career. They moved to Live Oak, Florida, and founded the Suwanee River Jamboree, and soon picked up a television and radio circuit for the Jim Walter Homes Corporation. That year they began recording for Starday and King, labels focused on ethnic niches overlooked by mass media. Ralph managed the band’s business affairs and, as Carter’s health began to fail, found himself increasingly fronting the band as lead singer and master of ceremonies.

The Stanley Brothers were discovered by new audiences, not only in the deep south, but in cities, at colleges, and in Europe, as the folk music boom of the early ‘60s spread. In 1965, they drove up from Florida for the first multi-day bluegrass festival in Fincastle, Virginia. Carter’s death in December of 1966 came before the festivals grew into a viable performance circuit.

Ralph faced a true dilemma as he entered his forties. Should he change careers in order to better provide for his growing family? Or should he revamp the Clinch Mountain Boys? King Records’ Syd Nathan and the fans urged the latter course, and soon Ralph was running the roads again, in a station wagon with Curly Ray Cline, Melvin Goins, and a 19-year-old Larry Sparks. In April of 1968, Ralph moved from Florida back to his childhood home, where he began a Memorial Day bluegrass festival in 1971.

In 1970, Ralph and the band (Roy Lee Centers, Curly Ray Cline, and Jack Cooke) were late to a show in West Virginia. As he arrived, he heard 15-year-olds Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley filling in with songs of the early Stanley Brothers. Recognizing both their love for his music and amazing talent, Ralph Stanley added the two teenagers to the group for two summers and whenever else they could get away from school.

Ralph Stanley mentored many other fine musicians over the years, including guitarists Ricky Lee, Junior Blankenship, Charlie Sizemore, Sammy Adkins, Tony “Renfro” Profitt, James Alan Shelton, and (son) Ralph Stanley II; mandolinists Ron Thomasson, John Rigsby, and (grandson) Nathan Stanley; fiddlers James Price, Todd Meade, and Dewey Brown; and banjo picker Steve Sparkman.

An endless string of recordings emerged on King, Rebel, Columbia (again) and numerous smaller labels. The Clinch Mountain Boys have headlined for the entire four decades of bluegrass festivals. The movie “O Brother Where Art Thou” (2000) brought Ralph Stanley’s music to the largest audiences of his career, and led to a Grammy award for “Oh Death.”

After performing professionally in seven decades, the octogenarian is beginning to slow down a bit. Son Ralph Stanley II heads the Clinch Mountain Boys on a number of their dates. But Ralph, Sr. can still be heard on the Grand Ole Opry and major concert events. His career is well-documented in the Ralph Stanley Museum on the Crooked Road at Clintwood, Virginia, and in a 2009 autobiography coauthored with Eddie Dean.

“[When I decided to reform the Clinch Mountain Boys after Carter’s death] there wasn’t too much else I was qualified to do… I got letters by the hundreds from fans asking me to, and that encouraged me. I didn’t know much else to do, except going down to labor and hard work, and I never did like that… I wanted to keep as near as I could the same sound, but I guess maybe it didn’t. Sort of… I don’t know what you would call it: a lonesomer sound… a mountain sound, or something.”
“The Ralph Stanley Story: An Interview with Fred Bartenstein,” Muleskinner News, March, 1972.

“[I’d like to be remembered] as a fella that give the best of my life to bluegrass music; done my best to do it the right way [and] never lower the name down… [of] a music that I respect and love.”
Interview with Barry Willis in America’s Music: Bluegrass, 1989.

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