Now 81 years old, Stanley has been performing professionally since he and his older brother, Carter, formed a band in their native southwestern Virginia in 1946. Between that date and 1966, when Carter died, the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys became one of the most celebrated bluegrass groups in the world, rivaling in popularity such titans as Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs.
After Carter’s death, Stanley shifted the band’s musical emphasis from hard-driving bluegrass to an older, sadder, less adorned mountain style. As a bandleader, he nourished such young and promising talents as Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Larry Sparks and Charlie Sizemore, all of whom eventually graduated to distinguished solo careers.
While he has long been revered by enthusiasts of folk, bluegrass and country music, Stanley has lately been commanding the kind of honors due a musical original. In 2003, he shared with his friend Jim Lauderdale a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. The year before that, he won Grammys for Best Country Male Vocalist Performance (beating out Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Tim McGraw, Lyle Lovett and Ryan Adams) and Album of the Year (for his part in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? collection). In 2001, he was the subject of an admiring profile in the New Yorker, written by novelist David Gates, who traveled with Stanley for months gathering material. He is the central figure in the D. A. Pennebaker/Chris Hegedus 2000 documentary, Down From The Mountain.
“A master performer without an expiration date. . . .”
“The timeless air has always been present in the voice of Ralph Stanley. . . . There was nothing high, lonesome or mournful about his tone. Instead, he embodied the protagonist in an ancient murder ballad. His voice was sharp, scolding, vengeful, and it’s why this music cuts so deep. . . ”
“Then there was Stanley, today’s Elvis of traditional music. With his hands casually clasped at his waist, he filled the theater with his plaintive plea against dying, ‘O Death,’ whose solemn lyrics he magically makes uplifting.”