Dr. Ralph Stanley, a pillar of bluegrass and country music, has died at the age of 89.
Stanley’s grandson, Nathan Stanley, shared the news on Facebook on Thursday evening.
“My heart is broken into pieces,” wrote Nathan. “My papaw, my dad, and the greatest man in the world, Dr. Ralph Stanley has went home to be with Jesus just a few minutes ago.
Nathan said his grandfather had been fighting a prolonged battle with skin cancer.
“My Papaw was loved by millions of fans from all around the world, and he loved all of you,” add Nathan. “If he was singing and on stage, he was happy.
Known as “The Patriarch of Bluegrass,” Stanley was instrumental in bringing Old Time music from the Appalachian mountain region to national audiences. A member of the Grand Ole Opry and International Bluegrass Hall of Fame, Stanley was one of the first-generation bluegrass musicians. His songs, vocal style and banjo skills have influenced countless musicians throughout the decades.
Born in Stratton, Virginia, Stanley began his music career in 1946 with his brother Carter Stanley in the Clinch Mountain Boys. A gifted banjoist and singer, Stanley, along with his brother, wrote several songs that helped lay the foundation for bluegrass in the years to come. Ralph and Carter would eventually form the Stanley Brothers, a pivotal bluegrass duo. Their recording of “Rank Stranger” is in the Library of Congress and considered a work of cultural significance.
The Stanley Brothers’ career ebbed and flowed throughout the years. When the rock and roll craze hit in the late 1950’s, bluegrass became less commercially viable, but the brothers endured. In the 1960’s, they experienced a revival and found success in America and Europe, including a 1966 performance in London’s Royal Albert Hall. On Dec. 1 of that same year, Carter suddenly died. The death had a tremendous impact on Ralph, but he carried on and continued to perform nearly a week after his death.
In the 1970’s, he formed Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, which included a young Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs. Later that decade in 1976, Lincoln Memorial University awarded Stanley an honorary doctor of the arts. Since then, he has been known professionally as Dr. Ralph Stanley.
The late 90’s reintroduced Stanley’s work to a new audience of Americans. In 1998, he recorded Clinch Mountain Country, a collaborative album that included Bob Dylan, Vince Gill, Dwight Yoakam, George Jones and a number of notable contemporary artists. Four years later, he was tapped to record music for the Coen Brother’s film O Brother Where Art Thou. He won a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for his vocal performance of “O Death.” The film also included an adapted version Stanley’s take on the American standard “Man of Constant Sorrow,” featuring Dan Tyminski of Union Station. The song became a hit the year the film was released and helped revitalize bluegrass in the mainstream.
When Stanley wasn’t on the road, he was at work on his farm tending to his livestock. He also dabbled in politics, running for a local election in the 70’s and campaigning for John Kerry during the 2004 presidential race.
Dr. Ralph Stanley’s voice and songwriting have an undeniable truth that can cut through even the hardest of hearts. Take some time today and listen to his music.