This December on Banjo Friday we’ll be featuring some of the best bluegrass banjo pickers—an exciting series, but with only five Fridays & so many great bluegrass banjoists from which to choose making the selections is a bit of a challenge. However, just as Earl Scruggs was the obvious choice for the lead-off Friday, so I believe today’s featured artist, Ralph Stanley, is also a clear choice—a masterful player with a distinct style who has been as much a part of bluegrass history as Scruggs himself.
If you know your bluegrass history, you know that Ralph & Carter Stanely were the Stanley Brothers, performing with the Clinch Mountain Boys from 1946 until Carter’s death in 1966. Although Bill Monroe at one time claimed the Stanley Brothers were mere imitators of his bluegrass sound, to my ear I’ve always heard a harder, more old-time edge in the Stanley Brothers’ music, & as such the Stanley’s have always been among my favorites in the bluegrass field.
Certainly Ralph Stanley’s formidable banjo playing & powerful singing were a major part of the Stanley Brothers sound; Stanley’s strong, plaintive tenor voice almost defines the “high lonesome” in a bluegrass context for me, & his three-finger banjo playing is quite distinctive (Stanley also has played in the more old-time clawhammer & two-finger styles, but generally adheres to the bluegrass three-finger method.) A concise description of his playing style can be found on Wikipedia:
"Stanley style" is distinguished by incredibly fast "forward rolls," led by the index finger, sometimes in the higher registers utilizing a capo. In "Stanley Style", the rolls of the banjo are continuous, while being picked fairly close the bridge on the banjo, giving the tone of the instrument a very crisp, articulate snap to the strings as the player would strike them.
Although Carter’s untimely death ended the Stanley Brothers, Ralph Stanley has continued a solo career with the Clinch Mountain Boys as back-up almost until this day. Stanley is a member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, & has received a National Medal of Arts, as well as being named a Library of Congress Living Legend in 2007. From the early days with the Stanley Brothers right up thru his recording of “O Death” for the Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack (& beyond), Stanley has put an indelible mark on the bluegrass sound & on the US musical tradition.
In choosing a song to represent Ralph Stanley’s banjo playing, I was fortunate to find a clip of him playing “Clinch Mountain Backstep” solo on the old Pete Seeger Rainbow Quest TV show. “Clinch Mountain Backstep” is attributed to Stanley, & while it certainly contains a lot of traditional music, the song also is re-shaped by Ralph Stanley in such a way that he “makes it his own.” My only regret is that the clip isn’t longer.
I know you will enjoy this true bluegrass legend’s amazing banjo playing!