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Ralph Stanley, RIP

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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.

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  • Arla

    I can’t take any more of this year, man. I cannot.

  • FMguru

    Ouch. This one hurts. What a tremendous talent and influence.

    I’m glad he got some late-career recognition and financial cushion because of O Brother. Can’t imagine anyone who more deserved it. Another mark on the credit side of the Coens’ ledger.

    • Anna in PDX

      That’s so true. That album really brought classic bluegrass to many who would not otherwise have appreciated it.

    • erick

      I think it is T’Bone Burnett who gets the majority of the credit. The credit to the Coens is that they trust him.

  • The Temporary Name
  • TBplayer

    Saw him once 20 odd years ago at a bluegrass/folk festival in Kentucky. It was a great show, but I was saddened to see someone of that stature doing two shows a day in a tent for a few hundred people when in a just world he would have been filling much larger venues in actual buildings.

    John Hartford was playing the same festival. While I don’t think of him as being in the quite the same legendary plane as as Ralph Stanley, I thought that was a bit sad, too. The music world can be very fickle.

    • monad

      John Hartford was, hands down, my favorite banjo player of all time. At least in the early to mid 70s, his style of playing was usually at the very least where-on-earth-does-he-come-up-with-this-stuff, and occasionally just bonkers wtf crazy.

      • Dennis Orphen
        • Cool Bev

          He also has one of the great career stories: Wrote “Gentle on My Mind”, got rich, and never tried to make another hit. Instead, bought a river boat and made any damn kind of music he wanted to.

          Also, he was really old-timey – made an album of bluegrass and rock songs in the old-timey style. Got to love it.

  • dn

    I admire Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs, but haven’t ever loved them like I love the Stanleys. Inspirational group, the absolute best of their time in my opinion.

  • Vance Maverick

    the emerging bluegrass tradition

    This hints at something I find perpetually fascinating — the ongoing rediscovery/reinvention of the old. (Tartan kilts, etc.) It’s something of an academic cliche, but looked at from a certain angle it’s a relief from postmodern despair: it may not be possible to keep “making it new”, but by making it old, you just might get what you need.

    RIP!

    • twbb

      Might just be quality winning out; good old music (e.g. bluegrass, jazz) becomes popular again, but bad old music (search “popular music of 1910s”) is not.

      Of course, that might just be circular reasoning.

      • Ahenobarbus

        We have so much more easy access to old stuff nowadays, it’s really amazing.

        • twbb

          That is true too.

      • Vance Maverick

        Are you talking about his late-life success (i.e. people discovering his good old music)? I meant more his earlier career as a “traditionalist”, with who knows what relationship to actual older traditions.

        • drkrick

          The music of Monroe (and by extension Flatt & Scruggs) was a pretty conscious synthesis of traditional mountain music, blues, jazz, commercial country of the time, and Tin Pan Alley. “Traditional Bluegrass” is almost as much of an oxymoron as “Contemporary Baroque.” Ralph Stanley’s music was also a synthesis, but he leaned a lot more heavily on the mountain music, which was product of the traditional Scottish music Jim Webb’s hard working americans brought with them plus a couple of centuries of folk process, as well as the church music of the mountains.

          I was lucky enough to hear him several times at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival both immediately pre- and post-O Brother. Even almost got shortchanged by him when buying a CD at the shake and howdy tent – James Shelton caught the error. Won’t be another like him, that’s for sure.

    • Thom

      “It’s something of an academic cliche”

      The academic life of this very helpful line of thought goes back to Hobsbawm and Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (1983).

  • Anna in PDX

    Thank you Erik for doing this nice obit post. I was hoping you would. I did grow up with the Stanley Brothers on the turntable and their songs are really nostalgic for me. He was the last of the greats.

  • Origami Isopod

    Shit. :(

    I saw him only once, in 2002, post-O Brother! Got his autograph, too. RIP.

  • Ahenobarbus

    He didn’t do much of this kind of thing – thankfully, I think, as it risks becoming a gimmick – but Ralph Stanley did cover the Velvet Underground.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77lc1yxBtFE

    • petesh

      Wow. I did not know that. Also, I did not know most of the words!

    • rm

      Thank you for that — this kind of thing makes me grin foolishly.

      Also, not everything he did in post-O Brother was nostalgic or traditional — he seems to have been very open minded. He contributed to the bluegrass/jazz/klezmer fusion project The Wayfaring Strangers on the 2001 album “Shifting Sands of Time,” with this jazz version of “Wayfaring Stranger.” And a few years later he was on John Carter Cash’s project Cedar Hill Refugees that had musicians from, I think, Kyrgyzstan play with country/jazz/whatever people on traditional Americana songs — here he is on “Keys to the Kingdom.”

  • howard

    i only know his music a tiny bit, but i know enough to recognize that he was a giant: nice writeup and music choices.

  • petesh

    I saw him in Santa Cruz, shortly before O Brother, maybe 1998. His tour bus was outside this tiny hall, and tickets were available at the door (cheap, I forget how much). At intermission, he walked through the audience to the back and sold and signed CDs; he thanked me for also remembering Carter. Not only was he a true gentleman, he was an old pro and this was just part of the gig.

    Also, Hardly Strictly (which he missed last year for health reasons) will miss him terribly. Most of the traditional Sunday afternoon line-up has now passed. Emmylou, dont you dare get any ideas.

  • i8kraft

    Let him rest on a peaceful mountain.

  • Jake the antisoshul soshulist

    I have to add this one, which is among my very favorites.
    I’ve thought Burke should have stuck to aesthetics, and this along with much of The Stanley Brothers work falls into the category of the sublime.

    https://youtu.be/YqpOdKMrZS0

  • brad

    And add another loss to the list in this shitty year so far, another big one; Bernie Worrell.
    Fuck you, passage of time.

    • Dennis Orphen

      Fuck noooooooo, just heard it here. AGHHHHH.

  • wjts

    Bernie Worrell has also passed away. Bad day for the good guys all around.

    ETA: Missed brad’s comment above.

  • tomstickler

    Death did not hold him over for another year.

  • Howlin Wolfe

    I saw Ralph and the Clinch Mountain Boys at college in 1971. It made a big impression on me. The fiddler was a character named Curly Ray Kline. Don’t know what happened to him, but he was great.

    • drkrick

      Curly Ray passed away several years ago of black lung. He was a coal miner when he wasn’t on the road.

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