The bluegrass legend’s latest album is a family affair
Ralph Stanley comes right to the point when asked about his legacy. “I’m proud of it,” he says of his iconic near seven-decade career. “I’m really thankful the good Lord has kept me around and shown me what to do and all. I’m real proud of that.”
Renowned for his distinctive vocals and banjo technique, Stanley, 87, formed his first band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, in 1946, while also performing with his brother Carter as the Stanley Brothers. Stanley is recognized as a master of the clawhammer banjo style—a three-finger technique distinguished by a rapid fire “forward roll” that’s played close to the banjo’s bridge.
Stanley’s contributions to American music were officially recognized in 2006 when he was awarded the National Medal of the Arts. A member of the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and a Library of Congress Living Legend, he won the Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 2002 for his performance of “O Death” from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which has sold more than 8 million copies.
Despite the accolades, the plainspoken Mr. Stanley—make that Dr. Stanley, courtesy of the honorary doctorate of music he was awarded by Lincoln Memorial University in 1976—seems most pleased with his induction into the Grand Ole Opry in 2000. “I’m thankful that I’ve done well,” he says. “But I’m real proud of that. That was something I always wanted for several years because that’s a very big thing. When you get there, you’ve reached the top.”
Over the decades, Stanley has also been responsible for fostering new talent, including future stars Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley. “They started with me when they were 15 or 16,” he says. “I certainly saw their talent immediately. Keith stayed with me six or seven years and Ricky stayed maybe two or three years—but he was with me a couple of different times.”
The bluegrass veteran’s latest collaboration is with an artist closer to home—son Ralph Stanley II, who has performed on his father’s albums since he was a teen. Their new album, Side by Side, finds the two co-billed for the first time. “He just thought of it,” Stanley says. “I don’t know why he hadn’t thought of it before. I was proud to help him out. I didn’t do it for me, I did it for him.”
The new album finds the legend’s mournful vocals in fine form, although he’s playing on only one track. “I don’t play the banjo much anymore,” he admits, “just a little bit of clawhammer sometimes. I have arthritis, and my fingers aren’t exactly what they were a few years back. I figured I’d quit, because I didn’t want to mess up. There are plenty who play just like me, so I can always get someone to play those parts. There’s always someone wanting to record with me.”
So will Stanley head into the studio again? “I haven’t thought much about it,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for 67 years, and I’m still going good. But I couldn’t tell you at this point one way or another. If things come around the right way, and I feel like I can do it justice, then it could happen. But like I said, I might not. You never know what might come around.”
For now, Stanley is happy performing live at a snappy pace. “As long as I’m able, I’m glad to do it,” he maintains. “I still play with the Clinch Mountain Boys—we go out and work a week or two and then come home for five or six days. That makes a pretty good life, to be able to express yourself like that. I’m well pleased with it. I don’t think my voice has faded any, and that’s something I’m real thankful for.”