R.I.P. Ralph Stanley

Over the years, we at Southwest Roots Music (known in the early days as Thirsty Ear) have had the privilege of working with some of the greatest roots musicians of all time. Some, like Taj Mahal, are still out on the road making magic. Many, of course, have passed on, including Doc Watson, Odetta, and R.L. Burnside–three musical giants. We are sad that our old friend Ralph Stanley, whose high-lonesome voice is one of the most soulful sounds I personally have ever heard, has joined their ranks. He died on June 23, 2016 at age 89 at his home in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. This is the same home in which he was born in February 1927. Stanley was the last of the great original pioneers of bluegrass.

Ralph Stanley didn’t have the warmest personality. He wasn’t like Doc Watson, who seemed to have as good a time backstage as he did onstage. Nor like Odetta, who could be quite harsh to those around her. Nor like Burnside, who was always a riot, drinking and telling dirty stories to whomever would listen. Stanley was more stoic and quiet, though unfailingly courteous. But like those other great artists, once he hit the stage and opened his mouth he had a huge natural authority and presence. In the decade and a half we worked with him in NM–booking shows in Albuquerque and Santa Fe at venues as diverse as the Hiland Theatre, the Lensic, and the Hispanic Cultural Center–at every performance the hair on my neck stood up. It was usually when he was singing his signature a cappella rendition of “O Death,” made famous by the O Brother Where Art Thou? film and soundtrack. I can’t say that about any other artist with whom we’ve worked. So many bluegrass singers conform to a certain sound and vocal style. But Stanley’s voice was like no other, completely unique and authentic, which is what makes him so much more interesting than 99.9% of other bluegrass singers. That’s my opinion, anyway.

There was a lot of humor at Ralph Stanley shows too. He was notorious for stretching intermissions to the point of ridiculousness as he and his band worked the merch booth, hocking not just CDs and LPs, but wares as exotic as the signature Ralph Stanley banjo and all sorts of branded schwag. I look back with great satisfaction at the whole experience.

Ralph Stanley was truly one of the greats–a roots music giant. He will be missed.

–Mike Koster, June 24, 2016