Austin City Limits mourns the loss at 89 of a true musical giant: Ralph Stanley. The Virginia native was not only a bluegrass titan as a performer, but as an innovator. Along with Flatt & Scruggs, his brother Carter and Bill Monroe, Stanley could lay claim to helping create one of America’s most distinctive musical forms. His high, lonesome singing, virtuoso clawhammer banjo picking and vast repertoire had a tremendous influence on bluegrass, folk, country, gospel and Americana. Though he didn’t write them, Stanley’s renditions of old-timey tunes “Little Maggie,” “Pretty Polly,” “O Death,” “Angel Band” and “Man of Constant Sorrow” (re-popularized by the film O Brother Where Are Thou) made them standards in the American songbook.
“Ralph Stanley was the last of the living bluegrass legends, after Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs,” remarked ACL Executive Producer Terry Lickona. “Like the others, he invented his own sound, his clawhammer banjo style came straight out of the hills, and his voice sounded like it had been around since the beginning of time itself. He was a gracious gentleman, with a gentle spirit. His appearance on ACL with Bill Monroe in 1986 was historic, a rare performance by the two bluegrass giants. Another important part of America’s musical past is gone.”
Here is Stanley with his Clinch Mountain Boys in 1980 with his signature song “Little Maggie.”