STORY WRITTEN BY ROB NAGY
For 21st Century Media
Recognized as the leading exponent of traditional Appalachian music, Dr. Ralph Stanley, “The King of Blue Grass,” credits his nearly 70 years as a working musician to his devotion to his musical roots. Pioneering the banjo technique that is commonly referred to as “Stanley Style,” Stanley is undeniably one of country music’s most abiding treasures.
Putting to rest rumors that he was retiring this year, Stanley, who continues to perform in excess of more than 100 concert dates annually, is grateful for the adulation that continues follow him. “I’m just thankful and surprised that people are still coming out,” said Dr. Stanley. “You don’t see many people my age doing this. People say my voice is better than ever. We sell out a lot. When I sing a song and see people enjoying themselves, I still love it.”
Born and raised in rural southwestern Virginia, where he resides to this day, Stanley vividly recalls, “I got my first banjo when I was a teenager. I was 15, 16 years old. My aunt had this old banjo, and Mother bought it for me. She paid $5 for it, which back then was probably like $5,000,” said Stanley speaking from Maine prior to a performance.
Following a year in the army after graduating from high school, Stanley, along with his brother Carter, formed the “Clinch Mountain Boys.” Strongly influenced by Bill Monroe and the Carter Family (later of Johnny Cash fame), the Boys focused their musical style on the traditions of the country, mountain and gospel music they had grown accustomed to in their youth. Over the next 20 years the Stanley Brothers established themselves as one of country music’s most popular acts. They performed songs such as “Angel Band,” “Rank Strangers,” “Little Maggie” and “Man Of Constant Sorrow.”
In 1966, Carter Stanley tragically passed away at age 41. Ralph was suddenly faced with the difficult decision of whether to continue solo or quit music altogether. “I was worried,” recalls Ralph. “I didn’t know if I could do it by myself. But boy I got letters — 3,000 of ‘em — and phone calls. I went to Syd Nathan at King Records, our record label, and asked him if he wanted me to go on. He said, ‘Hell yes!” Stanley proceeded to move forward by resurrecting the “Clinch Mountain Boys.”
With dozens of album releases, thousands of concert appearances and decades later, Stanley, who has been married to his wife Jimmi for more than fifty years, credits his success to living a clean life. “I’ve taken care of myself,” reflects Stanley. “I’ve never done a drug or been a dope addict or anything like that. I always took care of myself and managed to stay like I am. I’ve never done anything to endanger my heath or to hurt my voice.”
Stanley received his first Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for the song “Oh Death,” which was featured in the 2002 film and soundtrack “O Brother Where Art Thou.” “That put the icing on the cake for me,” recalls Stanley. “It put me in a different category.”
Stanley’s highly anticipated and critically acclaimed autobiography, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” came to fruition in 2009. In addition, he was the first performer to be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in the 21st Century. He is a member of the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and a recipient of the National Medal of Arts.
This fall Stanley was honored as a fellow of the Academy of Arts and Sciences. Founded in 1780, paying homage to America’s foremost “thinkers and doers,” Dr. Stanley joins past members George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Martin Luther King Jr. Current members include more than 250 Nobel laureates and 60 Pulitzer Prize-winners.
In May, Stanley was awarded an honorary doctor of music degree from Yale University. It was his second such distinction, the first having been conferred in 1976 by Lincoln Memorial University.
“I’m very proud of my years in the music business,” said Stanley. “God gave me the strength and made it possible for me to do this. I consider myself to be very lucky to do what I can do. It thrills me. I’d like to thank people all over the world for hanging in there with me, and I’m thankful that the Lord has blessed me. There’s one more thing that I would like. I’d like to be entered into the Country Music Hall of Fame.”
IF YOU GO
What: Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys
Where: Sellersville Theatre, 24 West Temple Ave., Sellersville.
When: Concert is at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 16.
Admission: Tickets can be purchased by calling (215) 257-5808 or online at www.st94.com.
Other: Joining Dr. Ralph Stanley, as lead singer of the band, will be his grandson Nathan Stanley.
Chance to win: As a fun bonus, when you purchase any Nathan Stanley CD at this concert, you will receive a chance to win a FREE autographed guitar after the performance. His latest CD, “Every Mile,” just won a Dove Award for “Best Bluegrass Album of the Year.” The CD features duets with his grandfather Dr. Ralph Stanley, Vince Gill, The Isaacs and many more.
More info: To stay up to date with Dr. Ralph Stanley visit www.drralphstanleymusic.com