One of the early leaders of bluegrass music, Ralph Stanley, has died at age 89. His death was announced by his grandson Nathan Stanley; Stanley’s publicist said in a statement that the cause was complications from skin cancer.
Ralph and his older brother Carter started out in the late 1940s as a duo. After Carter died in 1966, Ralph continued with his band the Clinch Mountain Boys and built a fan base fiercely devoted to his straightforward banjo and archaic-type singing known as the “high lonesome” mountain sound.
Stanley’s sound came in part from the fact that he often sang in a minor key, while his band played in a happy-sounding major key.
John Wright, who wrote a book on Stanley called Traveling the High Way Home, says that tension between minor and major, plus what he called Stanley’s unearthly smokey vocal tone, “gives this old-time mysterious flavor to the singing. The voice sounds like it’s coming out of the past, like a ghost or something like that.”
Stanley himself told WHYY’s Fresh Air in 2002 that he was aware his voice was special, “a gift I think that God’s given me, and he means me to use that.”
Stanley recalled growing up poor on a farm in southwest Virginia, using a stick as a make-believe banjo.
He and his brother Carter started playing professionally on local radio in Bristol, Va., in 1946, calling their show Farm and Fun Time. Trying to compete against more mainstream country music and rock-and-roll, they moved toward a smoother duet style.
After Carter’s death, Ralph moved back to the traditional sound. He also drew on his childhood experiences in the Baptist Church and started presenting a capella solo and quartet religious songs on the bluegrass stage, something that wasn’t common before.
Ralph Stanley entered the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 1992, but his unearthly tenor catapulted him to much wider fame when, in 2000 at age 73, he was asked to sing the song “Oh, Death” for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou.
He told Fresh Air he was surprised by the reaction, but also gratified with the letters from people who said “that sound caused them to change their life, and I … believe that gift was given to me for that purpose.”