Though Bill Monroe deserves credit as the father of bluegrass music, one visionary band leader does not a genre make. It took the 20-year run (1946-1966) of the Stanley Brothers --along with other groundbreaking careers-- to further one of the longest-lasting and most relevant musical developments from the first half of the 20th century.
Carter Stanley played guitar and sang lead, with younger brother Ralph on banjo and high tenor vocals. Together, they led an elite group of pickers known as the Clinch Mountain Boys.
"As steeped in tradition as the Stanley Brothers were and as old sounding as they were, they brought guitar to the forefront of the music and let guitar take breaks. That was unheard of back in those days," Jesse Langlais of Town Mountain told Wide Open Country. "They weren't the only ones doing it, but there's some innovation in there when juxtaposed against the deep, traditional sound that they have."
As a live radio draw (1940s), a major label recording act (1950s) and a folk revival favorite (1960s), the Stanley Brothers popularized bluegrass standards ("Mountain Dew," "Rank Stranger," "Little Maggie," "Angel Band"). Carter brought around 100 compositions of his own to the genre, most notably "The White Dove," "The Lonesome River" and "The Fields Have Turned Brown."
After 41-year-old Carter died on Dec. 1, 1966 from cirrhosis, Ralph continued as the leader of the Clinch Mountain Boys. Ralph's second act elevated multiple pickers for future stardom-- namely Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley.
"Just think about that: Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs in the band with Ralph at the same time when they were 17 years old," shared Americana tastemaker Jim Lauderdale. "It's mind boggling. I mean, what a training ground."
Lauderdale sang Carter's lead parts on two collaborative albums with Ralph: Grammy Award nominee I Feel Like Singing Today (1999) and Grammy Award-winner Lost in the Lonesome Pines (2002).
"I was so nervous on those records because I wanted him to like the material and I wanted him to like my singing," Lauderdale added.
An ongoing partnership with Ralph landed Lauderdale his Grand Ole Opry debut and other opportunities to share the stage with a giant of American music.
"Watching Ralph so much, he was just such a master," Lauderdale explained. "The audience would hang onto every word he said. When he'd get out on stage, no matter how long he had traveled or how tired he might be, he really delivered and just really was into it 100 percent when he was singing. And gosh, with that voice. His style and the songs that he'd choose to do would really resonate with the crowd, and he could structure his set very naturally. What he did was just all natural. It was like breathing for him. The set just went in a way, and he'd feature each player in the band to do a song. So, he was very generous with that and showcased the guys that played with him. It was structured in such a way that the energy kept going up, going up, going up in the set."
In between the two Lauderdale projects, roots music's first big happening of the new millennium sealed the Stanley Brothers' legacy. On the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack (2000), Ralph immortalized Appalachian folk tune "O Death" en route to a Grammy Award (Best Male Country Vocal Performance, 2002). As notably, the soundtrack's best-known selection, "Man of Constant Sorrow," follows Carter's arrangement of a traditional tune.
Ralph Stanley died on June 23, 2016. The Clinch Mountain Boys still perform with second-generation family band member Ralph Stanley II at the helm.
"I never saw him out on the road or in the studio to be in a bad mood," Lauderdale said of the elder Ralph Stanley. "He just enjoyed playing so much and everything that went along with it. He didn't complain or anything like that, and he kept going until he just literally couldn't physically anymore. That was such an important thing for him to get out there and sing."
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