Bluegrass Hall Of Famer Ralph Stanley Dies At 89

Jun 24, 2016
Originally published on June 24, 2016 3:05 pm
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley has passed away at the age of 89. NPR's Paul Brown has this appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALPH STANLEY SONG, "ROOM AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS")

PAUL BROWN, BYLINE: It was Ralph Stanley's voice and the way he used it that made him famous.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROOM AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS")

RALPH STANLEY: (Singing) She lived all alone on a dark, windy street, in a room at the top of the stairs.

BROWN: Stanley's sound came in part from the fact that he often sang in a minor key while his band played in a happy-sounding major key. John Wright, who wrote a book on Stanley titled "Traveling The Highway Home," says the tension in that pitting of minor against major resulted in something unforgettable.

JOHN WRIGHT: The voice sounds like it's coming out of the past. The voice sounds like a ghost or something like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROOM AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS")

STANLEY: (Singing) In the cool of the night, she take me in inside. And helps soothe my troubles and pain.

BROWN: Stanley himself told WHYY's Fresh Air in 2002, that he was aware his voice was special and felt that with it came a certain obligation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

STANLEY: That lonesome sound, you can't learn that.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Right.

STANLEY: That's just got to be born and bred in you. And it's a gift that God, I think, has given me, and he means for me to use that.

BROWN: Originally, the purpose behind the music was simply to make enough money to get by. Ralph Stanley recalled growing up so poor on a farm in southwest Virginia that he used a stick as a make believe banjo when he sang at home with his older brother Carter. The Stanley Brothers started out playing professionally on local radio in Bristol, Va., in 1946. Trying to compete against more mainstream country music and rock 'n' roll, they moved year by year toward an ever smoother duet sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EAST VIRGINIA BLUES")

THE STANLEY BROTHERS: (Singing) I was born in east Virginia. North Carolina I did go. There I courted a fair young maiden, but her age I did not know.

BROWN: When Carter Stanley died in 1966, Ralph Stanley quickly threw things into reverse. He seemed most comfortable with music that sounded old, whether it was or not.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO MUSIC)

BROWN: Charlie Sizemore sang and played guitar with the Clinch Mountain Boys starting in 1979. In Sizemore's opinion, Ralph Stanley was one of the finest and most underrated banjo players ever.

CHARLIE SIZEMORE: It was like playing with a drummer. He had a sense of rhythm that is unbelievable.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO MUSIC)

BROWN: While Ralph Stanley made this rock solid, traditional sound his trademark, he also dipped into his past to create something new, and at the time, daring. He started presenting acapella, solo and quartet religious songs on the bluegrass stage. It's become common now, thanks in large part to Ralph Stanley. In 2000, he was asked to sing "O Death" in the Coen brothers film, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "O DEATH")

STANLEY: (Singing) Oh, death. Oh, death. Won't you spare me over till another year?

BROWN: The performance rocketed Stanley to fame at the age of 73. He told WHYY's Fresh Air he was surprised by the reaction. But he also said his new audience helped him understand what he was intended to do with his voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

STANLEY: I've got many of a letter and a phone call from people saying that that sound had caused them, you know, to changed their life. And I just sort of believe that gift was given to me for me to use for that purpose.

BROWN: For NPR News, I'm Paul Brown. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.