The Stanley Brothers Biography

Carter Glen Stanley (27 August 1925, McClure, Dickenson County, Virginia, USA, d. 1 December 1966, Bristol, Virginia, USA) and his brother Ralph Stanley (b. Ralph Edmond Stanley, 25 February 1927, Big Spraddle Creek, near Stratton, Dickenson County, Virginia, USA). Their father Lee Stanley was a noted singer and their mother played banjo. They learned many old-time songs as children and soon began to sing at church and family functions. In 1941, with two school friends, they formed the Lazy Ramblers and played some local venues. In 1942, with Carter playing guitar and Ralph the banjo, they appeared as a duo on WJHL Johnson City, Tennessee. After graduation, Ralph spent eighteen months in the army, mainly serving in Germany. In 1946, after a brief spell with Roy Sykes’ Blue Ridge Mountain Boys, they formed their own Clinch Mountain Boys and began playing on WNVA Norton. Soon afterwards they moved to WCYB Bristol, Tennessee, to appear regularly onFarm And Fun Time. Their intricate harmony vocal work (Carter sang lead to Ralph’s tenor harmony) and their variety of music, with styles varying from the old-time to bluegrass, then being popularized by Bill Monroe, proved a great success. In 1947, they made their first recordings for the Rich-R-Tone label and later moved to WPTF Raleigh, North Carolina. With their standard five instrument line-up, they became one of the most renowned bluegrass bands and were much in demand for concert appearances.

Between 1949 and 1952 they made some recordings for Columbia Records which are now rated as classic bluegrass. These included many of Carter’s own compositions, such as ‘The White Dove’, ‘Too Late To Cry’, ‘We’ll Be Sweethearts In Heaven’ and ‘The Fields Have Turned Brown’. They disbanded for a short time in 1951. Ralph briefly played banjo with Bill Monroe before being injured in a car crash. During this time, Carter played guitar and recorded with Bill Monroe. However, they soon re-formed their band and returned to Farm And Fun Time on WCYB. After leaving Columbia, they first recorded a great many sides for Mercury Records. The material included more self-penned numbers, honky-tonk songs, instrumentals and numerous gospel songs recorded with quartet vocal harmonies. Ralph Stanley has always maintained that this period produced their best recordings and experts have rated the mid-50s as the Stanley Brothers’ ‘Golden Era’. Later recordings were issued on Starday, King, Wango, Rimrock and Cabin Creek. (Over the years Copper Creek records have released a series taken from radio shows, which at the time of writing already totals 10 albums.) Their only US country chart success came in 1960; a Top 20 hit for the novelty number ‘How Far To Little Rock’. The mandolin/guitarist Bill Napier (b. William Napier, 17 December 1935, near Grundy, Wize County, Virginia, USA, d. 3 May 2000), was a member of the band from 1957-61.

Through the 50s and up to the mid-60s, they played at venues and festivals all over the USA and made overseas tours. It was during a European tour in March 1966 that they appeared in concert in London. The hectic schedules caused Carter to develop a drink problem; his health was badly affected and he died in hospital in Bristol, Virginia, on 1 December 1966. After his brother’s death, Ralph Stanley re-formed the Clinch Mountain Boys, hiring Roy Lee Centers (b. 8 November 1944, Jackson, Kentucky, USA, d. 2 May 1974, Breathitt County, Kentucky, USA) as lead vocalist, and continued to play and record bluegrass music. In 1970, he started the annual Bluegrass Festival (named after his brother), an event that attracted large numbers of musicians and bluegrass fans. Over the years, his style of banjo playing has been copied by many young musicians and he has become respected (like Monroe) as one of the most important artists in the popularization of bluegrass music. During the 70s and 80s, the Clinch Mountain Boys included within their ranks such country artists as Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley and Larry Sparks, and others, including John Conlee and Emmylou Harris, have recorded Stanley Brothers songs. In 1999, he was featured on the soundtrack of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? singing an a cappella rendition of ‘O Death’.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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