The great Ralph Stanley died last night at the age of 89. Stanley was the last major living figure of the early bluegrass era. He began recording with his brother Carter in 1947. They never had major financial success–really only Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs did. They were a great band, pretty squarely within the emerging bluegrass tradition. But when Carter died in 1966, Ralph took his music back in time a bit. He always thought of himself as an old-time singer and banjo player, not a bluegrass musician. And that’s accurate. Bluegrass quickly developed into something pretty slick, with fancy instrumentals and a certain sense of virtuosity. Monroe developed the music by taking old-time and combining it with jazz, pop, and country music. While Stanley never completely rejected that, he emphasized the old-time Appalachian music much more. This led to some really outstanding music in the years after Carter’s death. I want to point out a few starting points for Dr. Ralph’s (he received an honorary Ph.D. from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee) discography. His 1969 album, Hills of Home, is an outstanding entrypoint. While I don’t care about the subject matter, the 1972 gospel album, Cry from the Cross, is probably the best bluegrass gospel album ever recorded. During these years, he mentored a number of young Appalachian singers, including Roy Lee Centers, Keith Whitley, and Ricky Skaggs. The last two of course became stars after switching to country music while Centers was pointlessly murdered. My collection of Stanley is this 2-CD set from these years, including live performances from all three. Really amazing stuff.
I saw Ralph Stanley perform twice. The first was in about 1998 at the Tennessee Theater in Knoxville. By this point, he was signing with his son, Ralph II. His son doesn’t have a good bluegrass lead voice. Good enough for country music, but not good enough for that style. So it wasn’t like seeing him in the 1970s, but was a ton of fun nonetheless, especially in front of a crowd that cared deeply about that style of music. I saw him again in about 2002 in Albuquerque. By this time, his late-career revival thanks to O Brother Where Art Thou had kicked in. He played to a packed house, played “Man of Constant Sorrow” like 3 times, and during the set break, shook every hand and sold every piece of merchandise he could. An old man now, he was going to cash in while he could. And who could blame him, given his long struggle to be financially successful, even if this meant the set break was a full hour.
Rest in Peace, Ralph. You were a true giant of American music. A few sample cuts:
And since this is a political blog, let’s not forget his endorsement of Barack Obama in 2008.