Thursday, June 23, 2016

Ralph Stanley's race is run: Oh, come, Angel Band

My latest sun is sinking fast; my race is nearly run.
My strongest trials now are past; my triumph has begun.
Oh, come, Angel Band! Come, and, around me stand!
Oh, bear me away on your snow-white wings, to my immortal home.

--"Angel Band," a Stanley Brothers classic

Ralph Stanley (Virginia Living photo by Robb Scharetg)
Ralph Stanley, whose clawhammer banjo picking and high-lonesome singing helped create a distinctive genre of American music in which he was an icon for seven decades, died today at the age of 89 after a long fight with skin cancer. "His musical importance cannot be overemphasized," writes John Curtis Goad of Bluegrass Today.

UPDATE, June 26: Stanley "leaves behind an enormously influential—and just plain enormous—body of work," David Cantwell writes for The New Yorker. "He was careful to identify not as bluegrass but as the old-time music that folks today call bluegrass. . . . His voice sounded so vital and powerful, and yet at the same time so frail and so very, very old." His funeral is Tuesday evening; here's the formal obituary. And an editorial tribute from the Bristol Herald Courier.

UPDATE, June 29: Here is David McGee's report for the Herald Courier on the funeral, with a video report from WYMT-TV of Hazard, Ky.

Stanley and his brother Carter, a guitar player, helped pioneer bluegrass in the 1940s, but he preferred to call it "mountain music," having come from Southwest Virginia, not Kentucky, the home of Bill Monroe, whose native-state name stuck commercially. But the Stanley Brothers and their "Clinch Mountain sound," drawn partly from their Primitive Baptist upbringing, were just as important to the genre as Monroe, writes Jana Pendragon of AllMusic. "The Stanleys are the reason that Monroe is remembered today as the father of bluegrass music," Cantwell opines. "Monroe, with key assists from Flatt and Scruggs, invented an exciting sound. As the first to adopt that sound, Ralph and Carter Stanley helped to invent a genre."

When Carter Stanley died at 41 in 1966, his shy brother considered giving up performing, but he revived the Clinch Mountain Boys. The band remained a staple of bluegrass, and "helped launch the careers of such country and bluegrass stars as Larry Sparks, Ricky Skaggs and the late Keith Whitley," notes Terence McArdle in an excellent obituary for The Washington Post. For a comprehensive obituary from The Associated Press, click here.

"Some new bands called their music 'new grass' and added rock songs to their playlists. Ralph decided to go in the opposite direction," Herb E. Smith of Appalshop, director of The Ralph Stanley Story, writes in a tribute for the Daily Yonder. "He described it as 'taking the music more back into the mountains.' . . . Those of us who choose to stay, who care about these mountains and the well-being of mountain communities, must remember Ralph and the old songs. We must also write new ones, so that the next generations will be strong."

In 2000, Stanley's a cappella, Primitive Baptist version of "O Death" in the film O Brother Where Art Thou "(a new cut of a song he had originally recorded as part of the Stanley Brothers), brought his music to an entirely new audience," with a soundtrack that sold 6 million copies, Joad notes. The performance won him a Grammy for best male country vocal, and that and the film "put the icing on the cake for me. It put me in a different category," Stanley told Don Harrison for Virginia Living magazine.

"Ralph Stanley was elemental. His voice was freshwater, wind, sky, and stone," Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young told AP. "Dr. Ralph is revered by Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch, Ricky Skaggs, and most anyone else equipped to handle the unfiltered truth." Stanley had an honorary doctorate from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn.

Stanley was not known as a writer, but was a favored interpreter and popularizer of classic folk and Appalachian songs, such as "Rank Stranger," "Man of Constant Sorrow" and this other song of farewell and longing, by his Southwest Virginia neighbors, the Carter Family:

When death shall close these eyelids, and this heart shall cease to beat
And they lay me down to rest, in some flowery bound retreat
Will you miss me? (Miss me when I'm gone)
Will you miss me? (Miss me when I'm gone)
Will you miss me? (Miss me when I'm gone)
Will you miss me when I'm gone?

Yes, we will.

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