By Dr. Bradley Hanson, Director of Folklife
Ralph Stanley, an icon of Appalachian culture and a pioneering bluegrass musician with a career spanning seven decades, died last Thursday, June 23, at age eighty-nine. In the week since his passing, Stanley’s remarkable life has been detailed in hundreds of remembrances on national and regional media outlets. We join the celebration of Ralph Stanley’s exceptional career, and remember especially his significant contributions to the rich cultural life of Tennessee. Though a proud son and lifelong resident of Southwest Virginia, Stanley’s legacy was also shaped through important moments in our state.
Along with his brother Carter (1925-1966), Ralph first performed on Bristol, Tennessee’s WCYB radio station in December 1946. The Stanley Brothers were showcased on the daily noontime Farm and Fun Time show throughout the late 1940s. In 1947, they made their earliest recordings for Johnson City-based Rich-R-Tone Records. They also cut classic sides for Columbia and Mercury Records in Nashville during the late 1940s and 1950s.
As rock and roll emerged in the mid-1950s, the popularity and commercial success of traditional bluegrass groups like the Stanley Brothers waned. However, Appalachia—including East Tennessee—persisted as a rare stronghold for older, acoustic sounds and styles. Still today, Stanley maintains an unmatched status as the musical benchmark for tradition-minded, hardcore bluegrass fans in the Tennessee mountains.
In 1976, Stanley was given an honorary doctorate from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, an achievement that led to him forever afterward being introduced as Dr. Ralph Stanley. In nearby Norris, Tennessee, Stanley became a regular headliner at the Museum of Appalachia’s annual Tennessee Fall Homecoming throughout the 1980s and 90s.
Following the remarkable success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and his unexpected breakthrough into the national musical spotlight, Stanley was finally inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 2000. His performance that same year at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium as part of the Down From the Mountain tour was captured for the critically acclaimed documentary of the same name. In his last decade and a half, Stanley continued to make appearances at the Opry, and performed several concerts at Knoxville’s Bijou Theater, the most recent in May 2014.
Tennessee remembers Ralph Stanley: