RALPH STANLEY,
1927-2016

Ralph Stanley, a founding father of bluegrass and guardian of mountain music who enjoyed a late career revival with the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, died Thursday at his home in Sandy Ridge, Va. He was 89.

A high tenor singer and banjo player, Stanley—with his brother Carter—performed Appalachian Mountain music beginning in 1946, right after graduating high school. In The Stanley Brothers and The Clinch Mountain Boys, Carter and Ralph were leaders of the genre in the 1950s Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys. They were also the most traditional of the three, placing an emphasis on vocal harmonies over instrumental virtuosity.

The Recording Academy's Neil Portnow, who's had to issue more of these kinds of statements in 2016 alone than anyone should have to ever, issued this statement:

Considered a patriarch of Appalachian music, Grammy Award winner Ralph Stanley was a masterful bluegrass singer and banjo player. With his prodigious banjo picking, haunting vocal style, and intriguing songwriting, Ralph helped pioneer and popularize the bluegrass genre and inspired countless musicians while doing so. His work on the O Brother, Where Are Thou? soundtrack helped bring about a bluegrass resurgence in the early 2000s. While he will be greatly missed, his contributions to music will live on. We offer our sincere condolences to his family, friends, fans, and collaborators.

Ralph Stanley evolved from a clawhammer style to what became known as a three-finger rolling style of playing while his brother, who died in 1966, sang the lead parts and played guitar. Their fans include Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch and Ricky Skaggs, a former member of Clinch Mountain Boys.

The Stanleys started recording for Columbia Records in 1947, moving to Mercury in 1953. They had only one Country chart hit—“How Far to Little Rock” on King Records in 1960—but were a popular concert act during the folk music revival of the early ‘60s.

They popularized “Mountain Dew,” “Little Maggie” and “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which was performed in the Coen brothers’ film by Dan Tyminski, Pat Enright and Harley Allen. The O Brother soundtrack won the Grammy for album of the year in 2001, and Stanley was a featured performer in the tours featuring musicians from the film.

Stanley’s rendition of “O Death,” which appeared on O Brother, won a Grammy in 2002 for best male country vocal performance and led to him recording for Columbia and touring; he played Bonnaroo and Carnegie Hall in his 80s.

He is in International Bluegrass Hall of Honor and the Grand Ole Opry; he also received the Living Legend Award from the Library of Congress, a National Medal of Arts and the Traditional American Music Award by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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