RIP: Dr. Ralph Stanley, Man Of Constant Sorrow


NEW YORK TIMES: Though widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of bluegrass, Mr. Stanley said on numerous occasions that he did not believe his music was representative of the genre. “Old-time mountain style, that’s what I like to call it,” he explained in a 2001 interview with the online music magazine SonicNet. “When I think of bluegrass, I think of Bill Monroe.” Mr. Stanley, Charles McGrath wrote in The New York Times in 2009, “is one of the last, and surely the purest, of traditional country musicians.” “He’s such a stickler that he has no use for the dobro, let alone electrified instruments,” Mr. McGrath wrote, “and he’s not overly fond of the term bluegrass.”

His reservations aside, the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, the group that Mr. Stanley and his brother Carter led for two decades,IMG_1868 was among an elite triumvirate of pioneering bluegrass bands that also included Flatt and Scruggs and the founders of the genre, Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys. Renowned for their otherworldly vocal harmonies and an instrumental style that was more soulful than showy, the Stanleys were the most traditional-sounding of the three.

Mr. Stanley sang high tenor and played banjo in the group. His brother sang the lead parts in a melancholy timbre and played guitar. Performing a mix of blues, ballads, hymns and breakdowns, the Stanley Brothers popularized a number of songs that would become bluegrass standards, among them “Mountain Dew,” “Little Maggie” and “Angel Band.”

Another staple in their repertoire, “(I’m a) Man of Constant Sorrow,” was updated, in a Grammy Award-winning rendition, by an ad hoc group known on screen as the Soggy Bottom Boys in the 2000 movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The song was performed, in voices overdubbed for George Clooney and others, by the bluegrass musicians Dan Tyminski, Pat Enright and Harley Allen. Mr. Stanley’s ghostly rendition of the dirge “O Death” also appeared on the multiplatinum soundtrack to “O Brother.” The song won a Grammy in 2002 for best male country vocal performance and afforded Mr. Stanley more mainstream exposure than he had ever had before. MORE

ROLLING STONE: Born on February 25th, 1927, in Stratton, Virginia, Ralph Edmund Stanley teamed up with his guitar-playing sibling Carter in 1946 and began incorporating the folk traditions of the region and Carter Family-style harmonies into their duo the Stanley Brothers and their backing band the Clinch Mountain Boys. Initially the Stanley Brothers performed live on radio stations in Virginia and sang Bill Monroe’s songs, but began writing and arranging their own material and recorded sessions for Columbia, Mercury and King Records that established them as key figures in the early growth of traditional bluegrass music. Their 1951 recording of the traditional song “Man of Constant Sorrow” has been adapted and re-adapted numerous times in the following years and they found favor with the folk movement of the Sixties. Sadly, Carter died in 1966 at 41 years old, and Ralph was forced to carry on as a solo artist.

Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys remained a popular fixture at bluegrass festivals for another 50 years, and the band was an incubator for country and bluegrass talent with members including — at various points — Larry Sparks, Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs. In 1976, Stanley was awarded an honorary doctorate of music from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee — hence his usual “Dr.” prefix. He also performed at the inaugurations of presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and was given a National Medal of Arts and a Living Legends medal from the Library of Congress. Amazingly, he didn’t join the Grand Ole Opry until 2000.