The passing of a legend 

Ralph Stanley's passing truly marks the end of an era.  He was the last man standing from the "big three" acts of the early years of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers, a link to the very beginning of the genre.  It was the Stanleys' 1948 recording of "Molly and Tenbrooks" that represented the first recorded evidence of a group emulating the sound of the seminal 1945-48 Bill Monroe band (featuring Flatt and Scruggs as well as Chubby Wise and Howard Watts).  In essence, it marked the birth of the genre, even though Ralph and Carter never called what they did "bluegrass," and Ralph certainly didn't after Carter's death in 1966.  But the Stanley Brothers went on to become one of the most important acts in the history of Bluegrass and Country music.  Carter's emotional lead singing on his haunting songs, Ralph's soulful tenor and driving banjo, to say nothing of their mournful, monumental duets, or the other innovations like crosspicking guitar that came out of their collaboration...  Their oeuvre remains at the core of the music even today, and 2016 marks the 70th anniversary.  They were Blue Highway's biggest inspiration in many ways when we started 22 years ago, and still are.

But after Carter's death, Ralph created another career, one that any entertainer could be proud of, one that featured many of the best musicians to come through the genre over the years.  And he did it without rehashing everything the Brothers had done, although it remained the heart of his act.  He almost single-handedly introduced a cappella gospel singing into the genre, and he brought back the "drop thumb" banjo style his mother Lucy had taught him, featuring it in almost every show.  George Shuffler, Roy Lee Centers, Jack Cooke, Larry Sparks, Melvin Goins, Curly Ray Cline, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Ricky Lee, James Alan Shelton, Charlie Sizemore, Ernie Thacker, Ralph Stanley II, James Price, Steve Sparkman, Dewey Brown...  So many great musicians passed through the Clinch Mountain Boys.  I played festivals and shows with many versions, and always cherished the opportunity to hear them and Ralph doing "Man of Constant Sorrow," "Clinch Mtn. Backstep," "Will You Miss Me," "Little Maggie," "Shout Little Luly," "Sitting on Top of the World," as well as all the great Carter Stanley songs over the years.  For true fans, it was just icing on the cake when Ralph became the centerpiece of the "O Brother" phenomenon, as much as it meant to him and his family at the time.

Most Blue Highway fans know that I often did an imitation of Ralph in our shows, and I'm sure they all realize (or hope they do) that it was done out of respect and admiration for one of our biggest heroes.  I'm sure Charlie Waller would have told you the same thing--he did a serviceable Ralph too, as well as a dead-on Hank Snow imitation.  One of my fondest memories is George Shuffler asking for the Ralph imitation at our shows!

I'm confident that the Stanley sound will continue because it's simply so powerful.  Its power seems to increase with time, and that may be Ralph's biggest legacy.  I am attaching one of my favorite all-time recordings, the Brothers' King-Starday version of "Little Maggie."  The whole cut is magic, with the pumping bass, sock guitar, cousin Ralph Mayo's soulful fiddle, but.... Ralph's lonesome, piercing vocal and banjo are the highlight.  This was probably his best banjo playing on record.  I defy you to listen to his break after the "Lay down your Last Gold Dollar...  Listen to that Old banjo ring" verse and not be moved.  It's the birth of the slamming modal banjo, in my opinion, so prevalent in modern bluegrass.  One of the great moments in the history of the music, easily.  

My deepest condolences to the Stanley family.