Life, Death and Faith with the Stanley Brothers

The music of the Stanley Brothers provided the final ingredient that turned an innovative style into the full-fledged genre of bluegrass.

by Randy Fox
From The Rambler archives – 2013

On March 1, 1949, 23-year-old Carter Stanley and his brother Ralph, who had just turned 22 the week before, walked through the doors of the Tulane Hotel in downtown Nashville. Along with their band – Darrell “Pee Wee” Lambert, Jay Hughes and Bobby Sumner — they carried their instruments into the elevator and rode to the second floor, the location of the Castle Recording Studio. The Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, as the group was collectively known, were fresh off the road from Raleigh, North Carolina. They had traversed the 500 miles for their first session for Columbia Records, and in just a few hours, they recorded the first in a series of the most haunting, beautiful records ever made.

Growing up in the Clinch Mountains of Dickerson County, Virginia, Carter and Ralph Stanley were exposed to the music of Appalachia as well as hillbilly music acts like the Carter Family, the Monroe Brothers, and Clayton McMichen and the Georgia Wildcats. Although the brothers had started playing music when they were still in their teens, Word War II temporarily interrupted any hopes for a musical career. After the war, the brothers began working as professional musicians in 1946 – their repertoire steeped in traditional mountain songs and 19th Century sentimental ballads.

stanley-brothers

Although they found a receptive audience in the mountain communities of the Virginias, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina, the wider world of hillbilly music was changing fast.  Western swing, the slick sounds of cowboy ballads, and a new electrified style known as honky tonk were all rising in popularity. The strings bands that survived and prospered were doing so by finding new stylistic hooks to hang their music on. The Delmore Brothers were pioneering a fresh, R&B influenced version of hillbilly boogie, Homer & Jethro struck comedic gold with hillbilly parodies of pop songs, and in Nashville, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys were updating traditional harmony and string band tunes with faster playing and a level of instrumental mastery that left their audiences stunned – especially when Monroe unleashed the atom bomb force of a spectacular young banjo player named Earl Scruggs.

Columbia Records Country Music chief, Art Satherly was pleased with the success of Monroe’s records that introduced this new style in 1946 and ‘47, but then a problem arose. Earl Scruggs along with guitar player Lester Flatt left Monroe’s employ in early 1948. They formed their own band with a similar sound and signed with Mercury Records. Monroe quickly replaced Scruggs with banjo player Don Reno, but there were now two bands playing this new style of music. If this was a developing trend, Satherly wanted to make sure that Columbia stayed at the front of it. He signed the Stanley Brothers based on the regional sales of the records they had recorded for the tiny Rich-R-Tone label in 1947 and ‘48, but also because Ralph Stanley was one of a handful of banjo players that had mastered the three-finger style of playing popularized by Scruggs.

But when the Stanley Brothers arrived for the first Columbia session, they were beyond just being an imitation of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. Throughout 1948, Carter and Ralph had been writing new songs that were steeped in the sound of Appalachia and focused squarely on the ageless themes of tragedy, death and unwavering faith in the hereafter. But at the same time the songs were modern in their lyrical construction, with powerful romantic imagery. Added to the arresting new songs was the innovation of a unique style of three-part harmony singing with Carter taking the lead on most songs, Ralph singing high tenor harmony and mandolin player Pee Wee Lambert singing a higher harmony part known as a high baritone.

The 22 songs that the Stanley Brothers recorded for Columbia Records from 1949 to 1952 still stand as some of the most beautiful, chilling and ethereal music ever captured. Songs like “The White Dove,” “A Vision of Mother,” “The Fields Have Turned Brown,” and the first recording of Ralph Stanley’s signature tune, “I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow” have become bluegrass standards.  It takes nothing way from Bill Monroe or Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs to say that the music of the Stanley Brothers during this time period was the final ingredient that turned an innovative style into the full-fledged genre of bluegrass.

The Stanley Brothers continued to make outstanding recordings until Carter’s death in 1966. Afterwards, Ralph soldiered on, forging a new identity for himself as a lead singer, and creating a fresh repertoire of songs based on the classic Stanley Brothers sound. At age 85, Dr. Ralph Stanley is still one of those rare individuals who actually deserves and defines the title of “living legend.” But even without the honors, titles and hundreds of recordings that have followed, the Stanley Brothers’ Columbia recordings are a snapshot of a special time and place in American music when two young men from the mountains of Virginia stepped up to a microphone and changed the world.

UPDATE: Dr. Ralph Stanley passed away  June 23, 2016. He is missed, but his music lives on.


Randy Fox writes about music, the only profession that actually pays less than being a musician. His work has appeared in Vintage Rock, Record Collector, The East Nashvillian, The Journal of Country Music and many more fine publications. He can be heard every Tuesday night, 5 pm to 7 pm Central Time, on the “Hipbilly Jamboree” on radio station WXNA-FM Nashville.

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