After 50 Years, the Second Stanley Brother Leaves Us

Stanley Brothers

Ralph and Carter Stanley (promotional photo, probably from King Records)

I have been reading one memorial after another, eulogies, tributes, encomia, to and for Ralph Stanley.  Most of them focus on his voice (click on the links for the full articles):

 

“You don’t replace a Ralph Stanley,” said Eric Gibson of bluegrass duo The Gibson Brothers.  “His voice sounds like it has been here since time began.”

. . . [Jim] Lauderdale and Buddy Miller produced Dr. Stanley’s final album, “Ralph Stanley and Friends: Man of Constant Sorrow.” The album, which was released in 2015, featured Dr. Stanley collaborating with artists ranging from bluegrass icon Del McCoury to country star Dierks Bentley to Americana duo Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

“It was pretty overwhelming,” said Miller of the recording process. “There was no one that wasn’t in awe of his voice. He’s a soul singer. He got more out of one syllable than most of us get in a lifetime.” (Juli Thanki in The Nashville Tenneseean)

Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead once called him “the most perfect singer alive.”

It was a plaintive, nimble and haunting voice that blended elements of Primitive Baptist church choirs and the Grand Ole Opry, music on which Mr. Stanley was weaned in far southwestern Virginia. (Terence McArdle in The Washington Post)

“Ralph Stanley was elemental.  His voice was fresh water, wind, sky, and stone,” said Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. (The Boston Herald, AP, no byline)

Ralph Stanley’s harrowing a cappella rendition of the dirge “O Death” on the soundtrack of the 2000 Coen Brothers movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” brought him a Grammy Award for “Best Male Country Vocal Performance,” and a whole new level of appreciation and stardom in popular culture. Those new to his singing at the time often stressed how the elderly, frail yet intense rasp of the Virginia tenor’s voice added immensely to the gravity and impact of the performance.

But precisely the same qualities had been heard in his utterly distinctive, soulful tenor vocals since the 1940s, and they could be heard on that song at least as far back as his first recording of it, in 1964, with his brother Carter in the Stanley Brothers band. . . (Barry Mazor, The Wall Street Journal)

 

. . . when it comes to Ralph Stanley’s voice, there has only ever been the one, and there will be no replacements. Stanley’s voice has been called “a force of nature,” “otherworldly,” “elemental,” “eerie”. . . His voice sounded so vital and powerful, and yet at the same time so frail and so very, very old. Stanley recalled more than once that, as a child, he was known in his Primitive Baptist Church community as “the boy with the hundred-year-old voice.”

. . .His voice began to weaken as he aged, but somehow this only seemed to treble its power. “I mourn out my songs more than I did as a young man,” he explained in “Man of Constant Sorrow.” “My voice ain’t what it used to be. My tenor has thinned out some. It’s got more cracks in it and it can get mighty rough around the edges and I can’t hit all the high notes anymore. But . . . I know how to use it better. I can put more feeling in now. . . . I can worry those lines like I never could before.”

Like no one ever could before, he might have said. And, now, like no one ever will. (David Cantwell, The New Yorker)

All of it is true, and worth saying.  There is not much I can add.  One of the wonderful things about humanity is our individuality.  Like all performers who rise to the tops of their fields, when you heard Ralph sing, you knew who it was, instantly.  Yet he was no prima donna, no spotlight seeker.  Brother Carter sang the leads; Ralph sang the tenor harmony.  Carter was up front, telling the jokes, and running the show.  And Carter’s voice, though quieter and mellower than Ralph’s, was just as compelling, often deeply moving, but never causing a stir.  It was the startling addition of Ralph’s harmony on the choruses that drove the Stanley sound to another level; they didn’t blend so much as join forces, becoming a mighty wind that brought the listeners to attention, and raised the hairs on their necks.  Even on their frequent trios Ralph’s power drove it to another level.

Years ago, then Boston Globe writer Steve Morse asked Sinc and me what defined Hillbilly at Harvard.  “George Jones,” we said, “and The Stanley Brothers.”  They had the same effect; they took a song, even a run-of-the-mill country song, and blew the windows of your soul open.  You never heard the song again without the lingering after-effect of their voices.  You could rearrange the curtains, but it was never the same room again.  Listen to “Carolina Mountain Home”:

After Carter died in 1966, Ralph thought of quitting, but he carried on, as bandmaster and leader of The Clinch Mountain Boys, eventually an elder statesman of ‘mountain music’, as he called it (not ‘bluegrass’).  He had a succession of lead singers, terrific in their own ways—Larry Sparks, Roy Lee Centers, Charlie Sizemore, James King, and his son Ralph II.  Roy Lee sounded, to my ear, the most like Carter, but none of them quite had the longing that came through Carter’s singing, waiting for the melancholy call from Ralph, younger than Carter, but always old beyond his years, carrying the listener to another world.  Nowhere was this more immanent than in the gospel songs. especially “The Rank Stranger”:

Ralph achieved a measure of celebrity outside of bluegrass circles with his a capella performance of “Oh Death” on the soundtrack of the dreadful Coen Brothers movie, “Oh Brother, Where Are Thou.”  The movie unbelievably had Ralph’s stunning vocal behind a nightmarish, fiery scene of Ku Klux Klan devils, but fortunately the rich traditional music of the popular CD overshadowed this sacrilege, and Dr. Ralph Stanley (from his honorary doctorate) and the strong voice that echoed from Clinch Mountain reached a whole new audience.  But for me, Ralph Stanley’s legacy will remain those rich recordings he and his brother Carter made in the ’50s and ’60s, back when the soulful mountain music of southwestern Virginia was just struggling to emerge into the musical consciousness of the rest of the nation.  /CL

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