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Stanley Brothers

Stanley Brothers, The, compelling bluegrass performers. Membership:Carter Glen Stanley, voc., gtr. (b. McClure, Va., Aug. 27, 1925; d. there, Dec. 1, 1966); Ralph Edmond Stanley, voc, bjo. (b. McClure, Va., Feb. 27, 1927). The most traditional-sounding of bluegrass bands, The Stanley Brothers with their group The Clinch Mountain Boys brought the high, lonesome mountain singing style to the new bluegrass style.

The Stanleys were raised in rural western Va., where their mother was an old-time banjo player. Both sons began playing the banjo, learning traditional songs like “Little Birdie” in the drop-thumb or clawhammer style. Carter switched to guitar after Ralph became proficient on banjo, and the duo began performing locally. Their first professional work came after World War II with Roy Sykes and The Blue Ridge Boys in 1946; one year later, they left the band, along with mandolinist “Pee Wee” (Darrell) Lambert, to form The Clinch Mountain Boys. It was about this time that they heard the legendary performances of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, and Ralph adopted the finger- picking style of Earl Scruggs to his banjo playing. The Stanley’s band were hired to perform over the radio in Bristol, Tenn., and made their first recordings for the tiny Rich-R-Tone label out of Johnson City.

In 1949, they relocated to take a radio job in Raleigh, N. C., where they were heard by Columbia talent scout Art Slatherley, who signed them to that label. (Supposedly, Monroe left the label because he was angered by Columbia’s decision to hire another bluegrass group; he signed to Decca in 1950.) The Stanleys recorded for Columbia for three years, featuring their breathtaking traditional harmonies on traditional mountain ballads and Carter Stanley’s compositions in a traditional vein, including the classic “White Dove” and “A Vision of Mother.” In 1952, guitarist/vocalist George Shuffler joined the group, a talented flatpicker who would be featured prominently as a soloist in the band for the next decade.

Carter took a job as lead vocalist for Bill Monroe’s band briefly in 1952, recording the lead vocals on Monroe’s own “Uncle Pen” and the honky-tonk song “Sugar Coated Love.” The brothers reunited in 1953, signing to Mercury, remaining with the label through 1958, and then recording for King/Starday through Carter’s death. By this time, they had solidified their sound around lead guitar and banjo, with Ralph’s licks limited to a fairly small repertoire. Carter’s expressive lead vocals were perfectly complimented either by Ralph’s unearthly high mountain tenor or Shuffler’s more modern-sounding harmonies.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the market for bluegrass music was fairly small, so the Stanleys relocated to Fla. for the winters, hosting a radio program as well as recording for smaller local labels. The folk revival of the 1960s helped revive the Stanleys popularity, and they toured the revival circuit and in Europe. Carter’s life was cut short by alcoholism in 1966, and for a while it seemed as if the band would fold.

However, Ralph emerged as an important band leader by the decade’s end. He first enlisted vocalist Larry Sparks to fill Carter’s shoes, who went on to be one of the 1970s most important progressive bluegrass performers, and then the more traditionally oriented Roy Lee Centers, who sounded eerily like Carter. The band signed with Rebel records, and were popular both on the revival and traditional bluegrass circuits. Centers’s murder in 1974 was another blow to Stanley, but he was soon followed by two high school-age musicians whom the elder banjo player had discovered—mandolinist Ricky Skaggs and guitarist Keith Whitley—helping to launch their careers in bluegrass and later the new traditional Nashville music.

The Stanley band has centered for the last two decades on Ralph’s banjo, the showy fiddling of Curly Ray Cline, and the bass playing of Jack Cooke, usually augmented by a young guitarist/vocalist and mandolinist. Despite the variability in the talents of the lead vocalists, the sound of Stanley’s music remains pretty much unchanged. Ralph Stanley’s contribution and influence on Nashville’s new country stars was finally acknowledged by the recent release of a two-CD set on which he performs with Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, and other new Nashvillians.

The Stanley repertoire has also remained fairly constant since the late 1950s. Their theme song is the “Clinch Mountain Backstep,” an instrumental that combines the modality of old-time mountain banjo tunes with the energy and sheen of bluegrass picking. Their repertoire has always combined traditional mountain ballads, including Ralph’s powerful vocals on songs like “Man of Constant Sorrow,” along with more modern honky-tonk classics, such as “She’s More to Be Pitied than Scolded.” Drawing on their experience singing in small local churches, the Stanleys have always included both traditional and contemporary gospel songs in their repertoire, and have recorded some of the most memorable gospel LPs in the bluegrass canon.

Discography

Country Pickin’and Singin’ (1958); Everybody’s Country Favorties (1959); Hymns and Sacred Songs (1959); The Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys (1959); For the Good People (1960); On Radio (1960); Sacred Songs from the Hills (1960); LongJourney Home (1961); Old Time Camp Meeting (1961); The Stanleys in Person (1961); Award Winners (1962); Folk Song Festival (1962); Old Country Church (1963); Hymns of the Cross (1964); Sing and Play Bluegrass Songs for You (1965); Bluegrass Gospel Favorites (1966).

—Richard Carlin

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Stanley Brothers

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