What does it take to become a legend? In Ralph Stanley‘s case, it’s being instrumental in the development of the modern bluegrass sound. Stanley, 85, got his first banjo about 70 years ago. Attempting to learn the popular clawhammer style, he instead created his now signature “Stanley Style” instead.
With his guitar-playing brother, he formed the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, offering a unique — and soon popular — alternative to his contemporaries, like Bill Monroe. And though Stanley still plays some of those original numbers, along with tunes from Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs, he’s not stuck in the past, but rather a time-traveling troubadour.
Stanley was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor in 1992, yet it wasn’t until 2000 that he was “discovered” outside bluegrass circles, thanks to his work on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. His rendering of the haunting Appalachian dirge “O Death” earned him a 2002 Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.
At 85, at the height of his popularity, Stanley, who also regularly performs “Man of Constant Sorrow,” shows no signs of updating his sound anytime soon. Give thanks for that. —Glenn BurnSilver
Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys are scheduled to perform 7 p.m. Friday, April 27 at 910 Live in Tempe.
(This article appears in the April 26, 2012 Phoenix New Times.)