Ralph Stanley (left) and brother Carter, who passed away in 1966.

Ralph Stanley (left) and brother Carter,  who passed away in 1966.

In a year that has witnessed the loss of so many important musical influences, we thought it only right to properly mourn the passing of Ralph Stanley, he of the inimitable Stanley Brothers, who, along with Bill Monroe, more or less invented the bluegrass sound. It’s often assumed that because bluegrass draws so heavily on traditional mountain, gospel and folk genres — which date back to the early days of the 20th century — bluegrass is equally archaic. Not so. As this informative obituary in The New Yorker elucidates, Monroe and the Stanleys (who performed as the Clinch Mountain Boys until Carter’s death some 50 years ago) birthed bluegrass (about the same time rock ‘n’ roll got birthed) by larding the old-time “string band” sound with propulsive three-fingered banjo and Lester Flatt-style guitar.

While the rest is history, Dr. Ralph (so named on account of his honorary degree from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn.) never stopped fostering and curating the future of bluegrass. The Stanley Brothers (the de facto name of Ralph’s band, even after Carter’s death) would eventually launch the careers of Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Larry Sparks, Charlie Sizemore and the recently departed James King. A track the Stanleys made famous in the 1950s, “Man of Constant Sorrow”, headlined the soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou?, the 2000 Coen Brothers film that introduced bluegrass to a wider audience than perhaps anything ever has. And yes, that was Ralph singing “O Death” on the same album.

Bald Hill resident Ben DeTroy, the band’s most committed bluegrass fan/practitioner, marked Stanley’s passing last Saturday night — at the Big Moose Inn, just north of Millinocket on the road to Katahdin — with a stirring rendition of “The Fields Have Turned Brown”. We may well work up another Stanley Bros. tune for Bald Hill’s back-to-back shows next week:

We leave you with a sigh of resignation over the loss of yet another musical icon (Merle, Bowie, Prince), but with the satisfaction of having seen the elder Stanley in the flesh — most recently in 2011, at One Longfellow Square in Portland. [Ben reports having seen him twice in the late ‘70s at the Hills of Home Festival, an event Stanley held/headlined annually in southwestern Virginia. “A real cultural jolt,” Ben recalls. “The crowd, especially the old-timers loved it when Ralph played the claw hammer and long-time fiddler Curly Ray Cline was the real deal: a gnomish ball of fire who charmed everyone while hopping around and sawing maniacally — in a way you’d expect Rumpelstiltskin to do it.”]

We leave you with a few words from The Good Doctor himself. He didn’t utter these words that night in Portland, but he’s pretty durned famous for having said them enough during the shows he played over the course of seven decades: “Giving applause to a bluegrass musician is like making love to an old maid,” he’d tell his audiences. “You just can’t hardly overdo it.”