Ralph Stanley, one of the stalwarts of bluegrass music and an important figure on the scene since starting the Clinch Mountain Boys band in 1946, died Thursday night, June 23, from complications with skin cancer. He was 89.
Born in southwest Virginia in 1927, Ralph gained his earliest fame in the Stanley Brothers duo, which he formed with his brother Carter. The Stanley Brothers were one of the first bluegrass acts to earn national acclaim.
Ralph forged his own popularity when he went solo in 1966, following Carter’s death from complications of cirrhosis. He re-formed the Clinch Mountain Boys, which at one time included a pair of young prodigies, Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley, both of whom cite Ralph as their main influence.
A consistent figure on the bluegrass concert circuit, Ralph gained an entirely new audience with the release of the 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? He sang a chilling a cappella version of the Appalachian dirge “O Death” in the movie, easily one of the highlights of the award-winning musical soundtrack. Ralph later won a Grammy award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance with that song. He often noted that the award “put me in a different category.” Ralph won a second Grammy in 2003 for Lost in the Lonesome Pines, a bluegrass album he recorded with Jim Lauderdale.
Dr. Ralph, who has received two honorary doctorates in music from Lincoln Memorial University and Yale, continued to perform with the Clinch Mountain Boys until his death. He is a member of the Grand Ole Opry and has been inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor.
Funeral arrangements are pending.