Ralph Stanley (b. 1927) and his brother, Carter (b. 1925), of Dickenson County, Virginia, learned to play and sing old time and religious songs from their parents, Lee, a noted singer, and Lucy, who played the banjo. Lucy taught Ralph to play claw-hammer style banjo and Carter played guitar. As children, the brothers played and sang together at church and family gatherings. In 1941, Ralph and Carter formed the Lazy Ramblers band with two school friends. The band drew heavily on local claw-hammer musical traditions combined with the holiness singing of the Primitive Baptist Church and soon began playing at events in the Southwestern Virginia area. In 1942, Ralph and Carter appeared as a duo for the first time on WJHL in Johnson City, Tennessee.
In 1946, after Ralph returned from 18 months’ service in the Army, he and Carter played for a short time with Roy Sykes’ Blue Ridge Mountain Boys. They left Sykes to form their own band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, and began playing on local radio stations in and around Bristol, Virginia. The brothers’ first big success came when they took a job at WCBY in Bristol, Tennessee, as regulars on the Farm and Fun Time radio show. With Carter singing lead and Ralph singing tenor harmonies, their intricate vocal work and variety of musical styles made them an almost instant success. They made their first recordings for Columbia Records in 1947 and later moved to WPTF in Raleigh, North Carolina, where they were in great demand and were one of the most popular bands of that time. The songs they recorded between 1949 and 1952, many of which were Carter’s original compositions, are now considered classic bluegrass.
In 1951, the Clinch Mountain Boys disbanded for a short time. Ralph played banjo briefly with Bill Monroe before being injured in a car crash, and Carter played guitar and recorded with Monroe. The Clinch Mountain Boys soon began to play again and returned to Farm and Fun Time on WCYB. They remained there for the next 12 years, playing music that ranged from self-penned honky-tonk songs to instrumentals to gospel music sung in four part harmony. Ralph Stanley has always maintained that the music they sang and recorded (for Mercury Records) during this time was their very best, and he calls this the Stanley Brothers’ “Golden Era.”
Through the 1950’s and into the 1960’s, Ralph and Carter Stanley played at venues, college campuses, and festivals throughout the United States and overseas. During a European tour in 1966, Carter developed severe health problems, alternately said to be related to alcoholism or to cancer. He died at age 41 in a hospital in Bristol, Virginia. After Carter’s death, Ralph decided to re-form the Clinch Mountain Boys to continue the Stanley Brothers’ sound, feeling, and spirit. In 1970 Ralph started the Carter Stanley Bluegrass Festival, a yearly event that continues to attract large numbers of musicians and bluegrass fans to Dickenson County.
Like Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley has become respected as one of the most important influences in the popularization of bluegrass music. Several of the musicians who played with the Clinch Mountain Boys during the 1970’s and 1980’s have gone on to have their own successful solo careers; Ricky Skaggs, Larry Sparks, Charlie Sizemore, Keith Whitley, and Ralph Stanley II are among them. In 1992, Ralph, his band, and Freeland Records created a two CD set of bluegrass and gospel music called, “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning.” The set featured a cast of bluegrass and country all stars that included Bill Monroe, Dwight Yoakum, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Alison Krauss, George Jones, Tom T. Hall, and Jimmy Martin. “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” swept the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual awards, earned three Grammy nominations, and was hailed by critics as a musical landmark. Stanley later worked with Rebel ReChords to reChord and release “Clinch Mountain Country,” a two CD, 36 song follow up that features an even more diverse cast of 34 guest musicians.
In a career that has now spanned more than 50 years, Ralph Stanley has recorded records, tapes, CD’s, movie sound tracks, video game sound tracks, solo songs and instrumentals, and songs with other musicians and singers. He has won countless awards and accolades, among which are The National Endowment for the Humanities Traditional American Music Award, presented by President Ronald Reagan; an Honorary Doctor of Music degree from Lincoln Memorial University; and a Living Legend award from the Library of Congress for his “contributions to American social and cultural heritage.” He has performed for two Presidential inaugurations (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton) and is an Inductee of the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Honor. His picture hangs on the front of the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, Tennessee, alongside those of the other country music giants of our time.