The pride of Big Spraddle Creek, Virginia, or somewhere close to it, Ralph Stanley was performing at age eleven and still going strong at age 89. “His voice sounds like it has been here since time began,” said bluegrass musician Eric Gibson, a sentiment that echoed across the music world this morning as we received word of Stanley’s death from skin cancer.
Forming the Stanley Brothers with his sibling Carter Stanley, Ralph played a part in a string of iconic bluegrass recordings that both grew and defined the genre. The pair endured downturns in their fortunes—a mid-Fifties lull even forced them to take jobs at an auto plant in Michigan—and moved from Mercury Records, site of many of their greatest records, to Cincinnati-based King, there to become unlikely label mates with James Brown. When Carter died in 1966, Ralph took stock and decided to soldier on.
“I pulled myself up,” he wrote later, “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.”
The roots music revival in the 1990s brought him new notice, and he saw a new peak when the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? featured his “O Death” on its multimillion-selling soundtrack. Endless accolades followed him across the new century, as did audiences. Bluegrass historian Gary B. Reid noted in his award-winning The Music of the Stanley Brothers:
After the death of Carter Stanley, esteem for the duo continued to rise, and their music is more popular today than it was during their brief time together. They have been the subject of several comprehensive boxed-set reissue projects, and the Barter Theatre, the State Theatre of Virginia, presented a well-received theatrical portrayal of their lives in a play called Man of Constant Sorrow. Carter and Ralph Stanley are members of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Honor (renamed Hall of Fame in 2007). The duo’s popularity received its biggest boost with the inclusion of their music in the soundtrack of the runaway movie success O Brother, Where Art Thou? Ralph Stanley has maintained a successful forty-plus-year solo career that includes multiple Grammy awards, congressional and presidential honors, the erection of a state-of-the-art museum in his hometown of Clintwood, Virginia, and countless awards from music and civic organizations.