For additional early history, from childhood through the Stanley Brothers and 1966, see the profile of Carter Stanley.
After graduating from high school in May of 1945 at the age of 18, Ralph Stanley was inducted into the army. He served a year with the occupation forces in Germany. His administrative talents were recognized there and he was urged to reenlist but decided instead to study veterinary medicine. As he arrived home, Ralph was taken by his father directly from the railroad station to a radio broadcast in Norton, Virginia, where he performed with his brother and Roy Sykes and the Virginia Mountain Boys. Carter Stanley and Pee Wee Lambert soon left that band to form the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys.
Ralph began playing banjo in a two-finger style reminiscent of Wade Mainer. He heard the emerging three-finger style from Snuffy and Hoke Jenkins, and adapted a distinctive variant in 1948, while both the Stanley Brothers and Flatt and Scruggs were appearing on WCYB, Bristol.
Ten years of regional stardom followed, centered on WCYB radio’s daily “Farm and Fun Time” radio program. The Stanley Brothers were picked up by national labels Columbia, and Mercury, but found themselves unable to break out of performance circuits where bluegrass was most accepted: North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia; and areas where Appalachians migrated for employment in Ohio, Michigan, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
1958 brought major changes in the Stanleys’ career. They moved to Live Oak, Florida, and founded the Suwanee River Jamboree, and soon picked up a television and radio circuit for the Jim Walter Homes Corporation. That year they began recording for Starday and King, labels focused on ethnic niches overlooked by mass media. Ralph managed the band’s business affairs and, as Carter’s health began to fail, found himself increasingly fronting the band as lead singer and master of ceremonies.
The Stanley Brothers were discovered by new audiences, not only in the deep south, but in cities, at colleges, and in Europe, as the folk music boom of the early ‘60s spread. In 1965, they drove up from Florida for the first multi-day bluegrass festival in Fincastle, Virginia. Carter’s death in December of 1966 came before the festivals grew into a viable performance circuit.
Ralph faced a true dilemma as he entered his forties. Should he change careers in order to better provide for his growing family? Or should he revamp the Clinch Mountain Boys? King Records’ Syd Nathan and the fans urged the latter course, and soon Ralph was running the roads again, in a station wagon with Curly Ray Cline, Melvin Goins, and a 19-year-old Larry Sparks. In April of 1968, Ralph moved from Florida back to his childhood home, where he began a Memorial Day bluegrass festival in 1971.
In 1970, Ralph and the band (Roy Lee Centers, Curly Ray Cline, and Jack Cooke) were late to a show in West Virginia. As he arrived, he heard 15-year-olds Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley filling in with songs of the early Stanley Brothers. Recognizing both their love for his music and amazing talent, Ralph Stanley added the two teenagers to the group for two summers and whenever else they could get away from school.
Ralph Stanley mentored many other fine musicians over the years, including guitarists Ricky Lee, Junior Blankenship, Charlie Sizemore, Sammy Adkins, Tony “Renfro” Profitt, James Alan Shelton, and (son) Ralph Stanley II; mandolinists Ron Thomasson, John Rigsby, and (grandson) Nathan Stanley; fiddlers James Price, Todd Meade, and Dewey Brown; and banjo picker Steve Sparkman.
An endless string of recordings emerged on King, Rebel, Columbia (again) and numerous smaller labels. The Clinch Mountain Boys have headlined for the entire four decades of bluegrass festivals. The movie “O Brother Where Art Thou” (2000) brought Ralph Stanley’s music to the largest audiences of his career, and led to a Grammy award for “Oh Death.”
After performing professionally in seven decades, the octogenarian is beginning to slow down a bit. Son Ralph Stanley II heads the Clinch Mountain Boys on a number of their dates. But Ralph, Sr. can still be heard on the Grand Ole Opry and major concert events. His career is well-documented in the Ralph Stanley Museum on the Crooked Road at Clintwood, Virginia, and in a 2009 autobiography coauthored with Eddie Dean.
– Fred Bartenstein is a bluegrass music historian and journalist.