Personalities | The Stanley Brothers | Bluegrass | Country
Bill Monroe invented the ‘high, lonesome’ sound of bluegrass vocals, but The Stanley Brothers perfected it. Ralph and Carter Stanley refined those vocals into close, three-part harmonies that were unprecedented at the time and which have had a lasting influence ever since. If Bill Monroe And The Blue Grass Boys set the standard for bluegrass picking, The Stanley Brothers set the standard for bluegrass singing.
Barefoot Country Boys
Carter (vocals, guitar, 1925–66) and Ralph Stanley (banjo, vocals, b. 1927) grew up in south-western Virginia, ‘way back in the sticks where there were no bathrooms’, Ralph later recalled. ‘We got a radio in 1936, which is how we first heard records. We were just two barefoot country boys who walked three miles to school each day.’ They grew up hearing fiddle tunes, string-band dance bands and brother duos on Saturdays and shape-note and lining hymns on Sundays.
Both boys were fresh out of the service in 1946, when they first formed The Stanley Brothers with fiddler Leslie Keith and mandolinist Pee Wee Lambert. Their first 78s betrayed how closely they copied their hero Monroe, but they soon came up with a unique twist on mountain harmony singing. Instead of a baritone harmony below the lead vocal and a tenor harmony above the lead, Lambert would raise the lower part an octave and sing a ‘high baritone’ harmony. The effect was thrilling and enabled the Stanleys to carve out their own identity amid the growing numbers of Monroe imitators.
It helped that the leads were sung by Carter, a powerful storyteller both as a songwriter and vocalist. The singles the brothers made for Rich-R-Tone Records (1947–48), Columbia Records (1949–52), Mercury Records (1952–58) and Starday/King (1958–66) were marked by descriptions of death, displacement and romantic betrayal framed by memories of childhood and hopes for an afterlife. The result was a richly melancholy music whose echoing harmonies suggested that the sorrows were shared. Carter was a charismatic stage presence both as a singer and an emcee, so when he died in 1966 from a lifetime of drinking, he left his shy, younger brother in a quandary.
The Clinch Mountain Boys
‘It was really hard when my brother passed away,’ Ralph explained. ‘I didn’t really know if I could go on without him. He’d always done the emcee work; he took most of the lead vocals and wrote more songs than me. I didn’t know if I could get someone to take his place.’
The fans begged Ralph to go on, so he formed Ralph Stanley And The Clinch Mountain Boys. Over the years, the band included Larry Sparks, Roy Lee Centers, Charlie Sizemore, Joe Isaacs and, in 1970, two East Kentucky teenagers named Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley. These musicians carried on The Stanley Brothers tradition and allowed Ralph to age gracefully into a living legend who played a big part in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? and who sang duets with everyone from Jimmy Martin...
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