On Thursday evening, Dr. Ralph Stanley, a monumental figure in bluegrass and country music, died at the age of 89. According to his grandson, Stanley fought a prolonged battle with skin cancer.
Stanley’s music influenced countless musicians throughout the decades, and he helped foster the careers of a few amazing country music talents. One of those budding musicians was Keith Whitley, who is now widely regarded as one of the best country music singers of all time.
In 1970, Whitley began singing with Stanley in the Clinch Mountain Boys, a group Stanley formed shortly after the death of his brother Carter. Whitely, only 15 at the time, joined the group with another budding singer, Ricky Skaggs.
Whitley left the group briefly, but returned in 1975 as a lead singer and guitarist. Whitley sang Carter’s vocal leads with such conviction that one bluegrass historian wrote that the harmonies “almost sound more like Carter and Ralph than Carter and Ralph themselves.”
You can hear the striking quality of those harmonies in this rare clip of Whitley and Stanley performing the Carter Family classic, “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone,” with the Clinch Mountain Boys. It’s obvious that Stanley knew Whitley was a singer of rare talent destined for greater heights.
Whitley would go on to have a short yet prolific career in country music. His songs “When You Say Nothing at All,” “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” and “I’m No Stranger To The Rain” are considered some of the best country songs ever recorded. After a battle with alcoholism, Whitley tragically died in 1989 at the young age of 33. He is still regarded as a benchmark for male country vocalists.