Oh Death

Ralph Stanley is the patriarch of bluegrass, and a banjo player, singer, and songwriter whose work harkens back to the very genesis of the bluegrass style, although he is quick to assert that he plays “old time mountain soul.” Stanley made his name singing with his brother Carter and their group, the Clinch Mountain Boys, in the late 1940s. Since then—and despite Carter’s sudden death in 1966—Ralph Stanley has been a headliner on the country-folk-bluegrass circuit. As Douglas Gordon put it in The Big Book of Bluegrass, Stanley’s “sky-reaching tenor voice and the simple, bright clarity of his banjo are sounds dear to the ears of thousands of loyal fans.”

Ralph and Carter Stanley were born and raised in Virginia’s Clinch Mountains, a fertile ground for stringband musicians. Their parents both played musical instruments, and their mother often entertained with the banjo, playing it in the old clawhammer style. Their father, Lee, worked as a sawmill operator. The pair learned their otherwordly harmonies from their experiences singing a capella hymns in their local Primitive Baptist church. Ralph took up the banjo when he was barely ten, and soon could pick in both his mother’s style and in a finger-and-thumb style that he learned from a mountain musician. Carter gravitated to the guitar, and soon the brothers were singing and picking together.

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