Rest in Peace, Ralph Stanley

  Ralph works on a banjo lick in the King studio (Gusto Records)
We were saddened to learn of the passing of Ralph Stanley yesterday at the age of 89. Stanley was widely considered to be the godfather of traditional bluegrass music who found found a new generation of fans late in life thanks to his Grammy-winning music for the 2000 movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

But it was his early work with his brother Carter Stanley (1925-1966) and the Clinch Mountain Boys that were some of his most important contribution to the tradition of bluegrass music. The brothers performed thousands of in-person and radio shows, recorded hundreds of songs and tunes for half a dozen record labels, and tried to keep pace with changing times while remaining true to the spirit of old-time country music. As a result of their accomplishments, they have become a standard of musical authenticity.

The following memorial recollection of Ralph Stanley is penned by David Johnson, author of
Lonesome Melodies: The Lives and Music of the Stanley Brothersat the request of author Richard Thompson for his column at

Ralph Stanley is one of the most compelling musicians I have heard in a lifetime of listening to music. The sound of his voice singing “O Death” from the stage of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in June 2000 caused the hair to stand on the back of my neck. From that moment I began thinking about writing the book that became Lonesome Melodies.

Ralph and Carter smile for a King promotional photo.
During my interview with Ralph on the patio outside his house in 2003, I was very aware that I was talking to a legend. As we know, he is a man of few words, so I hung on every word he was willing to share with me. I saved one question for when the interview might be fading, which happened abruptly as I asked about Carter. I threw out a question about the importance of faith in his life.

He shed the measured words, and testified to his being born again after a dream about two ministers – one current, and the other the minister at Carter’s funeral. When Ralph woke from the dream, he called the current one and asked to be baptized in the Clinch River that very day in 1999. He firmly believed that blessings followed, such as being included in the sound track of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Looking into my eyes, he said I would know when Jesus was working on me. I would get down on my knees. I was ready to kneel right there. I felt the power of Ralph’s faith, just as I had felt the power of his unique voice at the Ryman in 2000. May he rest on a peaceful mountain. After seventy years of offering listeners the pleasure of his musical gifts, he deserves that.