Dr. Ralph Stanley still touring into his 80th year 

Bluegrass great performs at the Music Mill Saturday

Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys may have come first, playing that newfangled bluegrass music on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in 1946 in an ensemble that included soulful baritone Lester Flatt and young banjo upstart Earl Scruggs. But the Stanley brothers were close on their trail, forming their own bluegrass group in 1947.
Unlike other bluegrass pioneers, the Stanley brothers, Carter and Ralph, came directly from the Appalachians, and brought with them to Nashville the mountain sounds they grew up with. 

Dr. Ralph Stanley will celebrate his 80th birthday Feb. 25, but he still vividly recalls those days of listening to his mother sing old songs and play clawhammer banjo (a style executed by scraping the first or second finger downward across the banjo strings). The old banjo player (who has now perfected his own style of picking) and tenor singer will roll into Indianapolis while he’s still 79, bringing along his Clinch Mountain Boys for a Feb. 2 performance at the Music Mill.

The circle stays unbroken

Even though he and his brother helped to create a new style of music — bluegrass, which musicologist John Lomax once called “folk music in overdrive” — Stanley hasn’t neglected his musical roots. In 2006, he released the Grammy-nominated A Distant Land to Roam, a collection of songs that were originally performed by the Carter family. Stanley first heard the Carters back in Appalachia before he made his fame in Nashville.

“I had gotten their records,” Stanley said in transit to a concert in Galax, Va. “I heard them mostly on an old time Victrola, they called it.”

On A Distant Land to Roam, Stanley says that he “didn’t care about the ones that they had done a lot. I did the ones that suited my singing the best. A lot of the songs that they’ve done have been featured. I wanted to get some stuff people hadn’t heard.”

Not that returning to the music of the Carter family was a stretch for Stanley: Even when groups such as the Osborne Brothers began to experiment with bluegrass in the late 1960s by adding steel guitar and drums, Stanley clung to his roots, sticking with traditional instrumentation.

“[They were] some of my best days. I think it was harder on people like that than it was me because people knew what to expect when they saw me and they didn’t with a lot of these people that changed it,” he says. “I stuck to my roots and people love me for that. If you’re going to stand for something it needs to be 100 percent, not fiddle-faddle around.”

Not just a picker

From the very first time the Stanley brothers duo hit the stage, big brother Carter served as frontman, singing most of the songs and acting as MC during the shows. But when Carter died in 1966, Ralph decided he would step to the front of the stage, crafting a show that would feature his distinct banjo and voice.

“I always liked to sing,” he says. “You can’t beat good singin’.”

Thirty-five years later, a new generation would become familiar with that voice from the hill country through the film O Brother, Where Art Thou. Stanley sang the traditional “O Death” for the film, a song that won him a 2002 Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.

“It surprised me, and you know, I think it surprised the world,” he says of the win. “Never been nothing like that.”

Stanley has picked up a few more awards of note: His doctorate in music is an honorary one, awarded in 1976 by Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn.; he’s been inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor and the Grand Ole Opry; and he was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2006.

Living on the road

Playing as many as 15 dates a month, Stanley still feels drawn to the road; triple bypass heart surgery in 2004 sidelined him for only a short time.
“I didn’t work for about three or four weeks. I went back too quick, but I just felt like it and tried it out,” he says. “Been doing this for 61 years and you miss it.”
Of the first-generation bluegrass groups, only two of the leaders remain: Scruggs and Stanley, both banjo players.

Stanley reflects  on his legacy as a bluegrass innovator and long-lived performer: “I want to be remembered as a man that stuck with his roots, never got above anybody and, when styles of music changed, I always stuck with what I started with and I think it’s paid off.”

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