At 86, and still with a voice as crisp as a bouquet of mountain laurel, bluegrass treasure Ralph Stanley is hitting the road for the last time. The triple Grammy-winning banjoist and bandleader will retire at the end of the tour that brings him and his Clinch Mountain Boys to the ArtsCenter in Carrboro Monday.
Billed as “The Man of Constant Sorrow Tour: The Dr.’s Farewell,” Stanley’s final concerts will lower the curtain on a remarkable career that began in 1946. Along the way, Dr. Ralph – he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music Degree from Lincoln Memorial University in 1976 – has become the “grand old man” of bluegrass. With most of the pioneers gone, Stanley is the last of the generation that elevated bluegrass from the singular vision of Bill Monroe to the global genre of today.
Throughout most of his career, Stanley claimed his fans from within the small, loyal bluegrass community. But his role in the Coen Brothers’ 2000 hit film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” introduced him to the world stage. Stanley’s performance of the haunting Appalachian ballad, “O Death,” earned him a Grammy for Best Male Country Performance, and was partly responsible for bringing a younger generation of musicians into bluegrass and old-time country music.
‘Real good music’
Stanley’s career began in 1946 when he joined with his guitar-picking brother Carter, to form the Stanley Brothers, an old-timey duet act. Within a year, they had earned a spot on WCYB, a popular “Fun and Farm Time” radio show in Bristol, Tenn.
Influenced by the new, buoyant sound of Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, Ralph and Carter were among the first to adapt their sound to that of Monroe. Their 1948 recording of the 19th century racehorse ballad, “Molly and Tenbrooks,” which they learned by listening to Monroe’s Grand Ole Opry broadcasts, is often cited as the earliest evidence for the emergence of bluegrass music as a distinct genre.
In a 1987 interview, Stanley told The News and Observer, “We thought it was real good music. There’d never been anything like it. Bill Monroe was always our favorite band. We wanted to play the music, but we wanted it in our style.”
During a brief stay at Raleigh radio station WPTF in 1949, the Stanley Brothers signed a recording contract with Columbia Records and began to establish themselves as a major bluegrass act. Many of their songs have become bluegrass standards, including “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” “Rank Strangers,” and “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
Following Carter’s death in 1966, Ralph reassembled the Clinch Mountain Boys and continued to record some 200 albums and tour as many as 170 dates a year. Several of his band members have become stars in their own right, including Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley and Larry Sparks.
In 2000, Stanley was named a member of the Grand Ole Opry, and in 2006, President George W. Bush presented Dr. Ralph a National Medal of Arts.
Looking back on 67 years of shows, tours, and honors, Stanley’s hopes for his legacy are as simple as the unadorned Primitive Baptist hymns that shaped his style as a child growing up in the tiny mountain community of McClure, Virginia.
“I’d like to be remembered as a man that believed in the old-time style, believed in keepin’ it clean and straight, dressin’ good, and puttin’ on clean shows for the people.”