Bluegrass music legend Ralph Edmund Stanley, better known around here as Dr. Ralph Stanley, passed across to the Other Side today. Cause of death has been given as complications from skin cancer. He was best known for his “high lonesome” tenor voice and “claw-hammer” banjo picking style.
He originally teamed with his songwriter-musician brother Carter Stanley as “The Clinch Mountain Boys.” Carter died of liver disease in 1966. At that time, Ralph was still painfully shy about performing solo, but his friends and family persuaded him to carry on the tradition. Many thought he had a better singing voice than Carter anyway. He did continue to perform in many venues, including the inaugurations of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. He was a Democrat, saying he was able to cast his first vote for Harry Truman.
He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree by Lincoln University. A few years later, he received a second honorary doctorate in music from Yale University. He was often introduced to audiences as “Dr. Ralph Stanley.” In 2006, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest official honor for an artist.
He only lived a short distance from me, just across the state line in Dickinson County, VA. I have run into him here in town while shopping.
At age 73, he was introduced to a nation full of new fans, when he sang the bone-chilling a capella dirge “O Death” in the Coen Brothers hit movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” There is a back story to that song. When he went to record it, after a few takes, he said he wanted to do it his way, laying down his banjo. He sang solo, without accompaniment. The producer said, “That’s it ,” and that is the way it was done in the movie. He won the Grammy for Best Male Country Performance in 2002.
As I write this, thunder and lighting play around the trees and the mountains outside my window. I hear the wind whistle across the roof. The Blue Ridge weeps.
Dr. Ralph, you will be missed.