When Ralph Stanley died on Thursday at age 89, we lost more than the last surviving founding father of bluegrass. We lost one of our last links to a pre-television America.
He was a short, gaunt man in a white cowboy hat and gray suit, his features seemingly chipped from granite with a stony gaze to match. When he sang “O Death” at Wolf Trap in 2006 as part of the Great High Mountain Tour, Stanley’s scratchy high tenor made the Grim Reaper sound like an acquaintance of long standing. This traditional lament had revived his career when he sang it in the Coen brothers’ 2000 movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” but Stanley’s ghostly vocal made clear that the song was older than that movie, older than the whole history of talking movies.
Even in the 21st century, there was an echo in his voice of 19th-century mining and lumbering (his father worked in an old-fashioned sawmill) and of the 17th-century songs that immigrants from the British Isles brought to the Appalachian Mountains. It was in the southwest corner of Virginia, in Dickenson County under the shadow of Clinch Mountain, that Ralph Stanley was born on Feb. 25, 1927. Together with his brother Carter, two years older, Ralph learned the eerie harmonies of a cappella Sacred Harp singing in church and the spry rhythms of old-time string-band music at dances.
“Three groups really shaped bluegrass music,” Ricky Skaggs told me in 1998. “Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs. Everyone who came after them was just following in their footsteps. . . . Ralph’s still out there 150 dates a year; he’s the last of the giants still in action.”
Monroe was the initial trailblazer, and his records on the radio so impressed the teenage Carter and Ralph that they formed the Stanley Brothers in 1946 to play the same kind of music. But if Monroe perfected the instrumental side of bluegrass, it was Carter and Ralph who perfected the vocal side: the close-interval harmony singing that was soon and accurately labeled “high and lonesome.” That sound clicked into focus after the band’s original member Pee Wee Lambert left in 1949 and the Stanley brothers landed on a singing style all their own.
“I still like singing more than picking,” Ralph told me in 1999. “There are plenty of good musicians, but singers are scarce. That high, lonesome sound we do goes back to that old Baptist style. I was raised in those old Baptist churches where they didn’t allow any instruments. We learned to sing without any backing. In 1970, I became the first person to sing bluegrass a cappella. Now they’re all doing it.”
After Carter’s death in 1966, Ralph continued on with Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, a band that was still performing into 2016. It was in this post-Carter era that Ralph won a Grammy Award, a National Medal of the Arts and two honorary doctorates. After the first in 1976, he was always introduced on stage as “Dr. Ralph Stanley.”
“It was really hard when my brother passed away,” Ralph told me in 1999. “I didn’t really know if I could go on without him. He’d always done the emcee work; he took most of the lead vocals and wrote more songs than me. I didn’t know if I could get someone to take his place. But every time I’ve lost a lead singer, someone has come up who was ready. And they always told me they were ready; I never had to go hunt for one.”
Over the years, those lead singers have included Larry Sparks, Roy Lee Centers, Charlie Sizemore, Joe Isaacs and, most recently, Ralph Stanley III. But the most famous singers to fill Carter’s shoes were a pair of East Kentucky teenagers who told Ralph they were ready in 1970: Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley, who both went on to become major country-music stars.
But Ralph always reserved time in each show for a few of the older songs that he would sing himself. Those were the moments that audience members were most likely to remember afterward. They were a reminder of a time and place where death and backbreaking work were not hidden out of sight, but were a constant presence.
“I don’t put nothing on the song,” Ralph told me. “I just sing it the way I feel it. I just open my mouth and however it sounds, that’s the way it comes out. I try to do it the best I can, but I just try to feel it. . . . Those old songs don’t sugarcoat anything. You don’t hear that kind of singing much anymore, but when I was growing up, it was mostly what I heard. That sound’s not spread out everywhere; it’s just here in these mountains.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report misspelled Dickenson County, where Stanley was born.