Top 5 Ralph Stanley Songs
Although Bill Monroe deserves the "Father of Bluegrass" moniker for popularizing a new interpretation of very old folk sounds, one game-changing bandleader does not a genre make. Bluegrass doesn’t become its own thing apart from country music over time without other ground-setting pickers following Monroe’s lead. That first wave of Monroe devotees included his former bandmates Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers, a groundbreaking duo featuring future legend Dr. Ralph Stanley.
Beginning in 1946, Stanley played alongside his brother Carter (Aug. 27, 1945-Dec. 1, 1966) as leaders of the Clinch Mountain Boys. On some of their most memorable sides, the brothers popularized a trio harmony style while performing with high baritone singer and mandolin player Pee Wee Lambert.
After Carter passed away in 1966, his younger brother Ralph carried on with the Clinch Mountain Boys name. As bandleader, Stanley continued wowing bluegrass audiences with his banjo-picking skills and talents as a vocal harmonizer. Bandmates in the '60s and '70s included such bluegrass ambassadors as Larry Sparks, Roy Lee Centers and a couple of teenagers named Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley.
A career that continued until Stanley’s June 23, 2016, deathat the age of 89 kept his family name and his beloved genre relevant and real. The mainstream peak of a career already lauded by critics and peers came when the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? featured a bone-chilling and Grammy-winning rendition of one of Stanley’s go-to songs, “O Death.”
Picking the five best songs from such an important catalog would be near-impossible, so think of the following as examples of how Stanley’s talents and song choices shaped bluegrass and roots music over time.