Banjo Legend Ralph Stanley Passes

by Barry Hunn

The world of music lost one of the great banjo legends last week with the passing of Dr. Ralph Stanley.

Ralph Stanley influenced generations of five string banjo enthusiasts with his driving and sparkling bluegrass banjo. His signature arch top banjo and distinctive approach to both fingerpicking and clawhammer in the very early days of bluegrass placed him in the halls of legend.

For those who have not been exposed to this bluegrass giant, he was also noted for his haunting and lyrical singing. Probably his most well-known performance was in the movie “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” when he sang, “Oh Death”.

During his long career he was always true to the music that he loved and he was always encouraging to musicians that crossed his path. I was one of them.

When I was a young musician, I managed to be hired as an opening act for Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain boys. When my partner saw Mr. Stanley before the performance, she exclaimed “are you Ralph Stanley?” He very quietly replied “what there is left of him”. He was gracious and encouraging to two young musicians who were just getting started in a career in music.

From all of us at Deering Banjos we wish to convey our condolences to the Stanley family and offer our profound thanks to this great man who inspired and still inspires millions to play the banjo.

The music of the Stanley brothers was nothing short of amazing. The real, honest, and pure choice of songs, harmonies, and instrumentation made them a true national treasure. They called their music Mountain Music or just Folk, to avoid any resemblance to other Bluegrass type music of their time.

Ralph was known for his love of the archtop banjo, which he also clawhammered in an old fashion way. His haunting voice and the crystal clear banjo tone became a trademark for rural America.

Musicians from all around the world tried  to imitate his distinct way of using the forward roll picked close to the bridge, which sounded to me like an old train rattling and rumbling over a steel bridge. 

I was always fascinated with the realness of his artistic expressions and the clarity of his esthetic measures. Dr. Ralph Stanley will always be remembered in my heart and the heart of people around the world as a giant of American culture, who has made his mark as an innovator in tradition.
- Jens Kruger

The mountain-style banjo playing of Ralph Stanley certainly influenced a lot of players. And he was a professional entertainer all the way around...from the way he dressed for stage to the sincerity of every note he played and sang.

Since my Dad's record collection contained a lot by the Stanley Brothers, I grew to love that sound early on. As a young boy I got to see Ralph and Carter together  in person once. But after starting my own career in Bluegrass in the 1970s, I got to know Ralph and liked him a lot.

A few years ago I was playing a festival near Roanoke, Virginia where Ralph was also appearing. Just a few days earlier I had seen a publicity photo of the Stanley Brothers with Ralph holding an old raised head RB 250 Bowtie. Since I was playing a Bowtie at the time, I asked Ralph if he remembered the photo and that banjo. He said, "Yes, I do... and I wish I had it back"!

He loved the people and the people loved him... and I join all the others who will miss him greatly.
-Terry Baucom

Ralph Stanley was an inspiration to anyone who loved traditional mountain music. His soulful singing and driving banjo thrilled us for over 60 years. I owe a great debt to Ralph because he encouraged me to travel the southern mountains and visit the old timers if I wanted to learn the real music. So in 1969 I followed his advice and never looked back. I am forever grateful. 

Ralph was one of the giants of America music.
- David Holt

Although I never met Ralph Stanley in person, he’s one of those special artists who make it so clear through their music who they are. For me, listening to his music paints a detailed picture of his life in southwestern Virginia and as a southerner myself, it inspires me to embrace my home more in the creation of my music.

It’s easy to just listen for technical prowess of banjo players these days (and for the most part its really fun!). But Ralph’s banjo playing brings a flow and feeling that is just easy and relaxing to listen to.

He serves the song, and its obvious that his main motivation - whether he was writing, singing, or picking - was telling a story. Know that even if you never met Ralph in-person, his music tells his story if you listen close enough.

Rest in peace, Dr. Ralph.
- Bennett Sullivan


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