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Remembering Ralph Stanley and his ‘God-given voice’

After a long battle with skin cancer, bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley died overnight at the age of 89. Since forming his first band in 1946, Stanley’s haunting voice came to epitomize the bluegrass genre’s “High Lonesome” sound, and he won a Grammy for his performance of “O Death” in the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The NewsHour looks back at Jeffrey Brown’s 2002 interview with Stanley.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Finally, tonight, we mark the passing of a bluegrass pioneer.

    Ralph Stanley died overnight at the age of 89, after a long battle with skin cancer. His haunting voice epitomized what became known as the music genre's high lonesome sound, since forming the band the Stanley Brothers and their Clinch Mountain Boys in 1946.

    But Stanley rose to wider fame with his appearance in the 2000 film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" for which he won a Grammy.

    The "NewsHour"'s Jeffrey Brown spoke with Stanley back in 2002, and asked him to explain his distinct singing style. Here's part of that profile.

  • RALPH STANLEY, Musician:

    Now, that's not my voice.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What do you mean?

  • RALPH STANLEY:

    That's a God-given voice.

    If it wasn't for the lord's will, I couldn't — I couldn't sing that way. He gives everybody everything they have. That's what I'm a telling you about changing maybe a verse or maybe a word or two. It can come to me that way. See, that's what you call the spirit comes to you.

    Hey, sometimes, I can't sing a lick. Sometimes, I feel real good. Sometimes, I feel like just jumping straight up. That's when you can really do the singing.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Just jumping straight up in the air?

  • RALPH STANLEY:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Ralph Stanley is at his most haunting and ghostly in the unaccompanied dirge "O Death."

  • RALPH STANLEY:

    There's never been truer words ever written, because every word in that "O Death" song is going to come. It's going to come to you and me and everybody else.

    And I try my best to make people understand it when I sing that, that it is. I never think about it, but I know every — I sing that every night. And I know that, one day, maybe tomorrow, or maybe 50 years from today, that's coming to me, see?

    It's already come to a lot of people. And that's true, a true song.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And you can watch more of Jeff's profile of Ralph Stanley online at PBS.org/NewsHour.

Listen to this Segment

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