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Ralph Stanley, man of constant sorrow and bluegrass legend, dies at 89

Bluegrass hall of famer Ralph Stanley died Thursday night after a long bout with skin cancer, his grandson confirmed in a Facebook post. He was 89.

“My heart is broken into pieces,” Nathan Stanley wrote in the post. “My papaw, my dad, and the greatest man in the world, Dr. Ralph Stanley has went home to be with Jesus just a few minutes ago.”

Stanley was born on Feb. 25, 1927 in Big Spraddle, Virginia, an Appalachian area known for its coal mines and where he learned to play, what he called, “old-time mountain country.”

In remembrance of the banjo-picking legend, we resurfaced Jeffrey Brown’s 2002 conversation with Stanley about his Appalachian soul, his singing in minor key, and competing with Elvis Presley. Video by PBS NewsHour

“People at that time maybe had a banjo and a fiddle or something,” Stanley told the NewsHour in 2002. “They didn’t have many guitars, but they would get together and … play with each other and play the instruments and have a square dance or just have a good time playing their old instruments.”

Stanley’s mother gifted him with his first banjo as a teenager. She taught him clawhammer picking, which is a down-picking style.

Along with his brother Carter, Stanley formed the Stanley Brothers and their Clinch Mountain Boys in 1946, drawing heavily from the rhythms of the bluegrass pioneer and Grand Ole Opry legend Bill Monroe and old-time standards like “Pretty Polly” and “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Stanley also favored a minor-singing style that epitomized the “high lonesome” sound of the bluegrass music genre.

Video by McLeod Bluegrass

The band toured the local radio stations and circuits, playing to hundreds. Stanley said, then, that his audience eventually lost the young crowd to country music, Elvis Presley and his rockabilly brand of rock and roll. He told the NewsHour that the 1950s were “very lean.”

When his brother Carter died in 1966, Stanley continued singing and playing with the Clinch Mountain Boys, building a fan base that would eventually swell to the thousands. After decades of honing the Appalachian sound, Stanley entered the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 1992.

Video by YouTube user Steve Walls

A career rejuvenation came in 2000 when Stanley’s take on the dirge “O Death” was featured on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” That appearance earned Stanley *his first two Grammy Awards in 2002*, including for *Best* Country Male Vocal Performance. *He added his third and final Grammy a year later.*

Video by YouTube user thewolf914

The wins earned Stanley new fans that were drawn to his pliable voice. And Stanley said he never sang the same line twice.

“I just sing it the way I feel it. I might sing one verse one way and I might get a little more spirit and do it a different way the next time,” Stanley told the NewsHour. “All the singers that’s ever sung with me said I was the hardest man they ever sung because we never did know where you was going with the song,” he said.

And to hear Stanley tell it, it’s not his voice.

“That’s a God-given voice. If it wasn’t for the Lord’s will, I couldn’t sing that way,” he said.

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