© 2022 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Richard Crowson Commentary

Crowson: Ralph Stanley's Legacy


We’re all used to the well-intended but slightly threadbare cliché: “Just take comfort in the wonderful memories. As long as you have those, that loved one isn’t really gone.”

But sometimes, those old words of comfort ring true. For enthusiasts of bluegrass and old-time mountain music, dealing with the recent loss of Ralph Stanley, that phrase gives particular comfort. 

Ralph Stanley isn’t really gone. His 60-some-odd-year recording career has left the world with a rich vein of melodic gold. That vein, from deep in the Clinch Mountain region of Virginia, will be mined forever by musicians and fans of traditional music.

Ralph dealt in hard drive decades before “hard drive” entered the popular vernacular. His banjo style was like nonstop kicks in the side of mule – it could keep a song at a brisk, steady trot.

His singing was like a well-worn church pew made of planks that still have the bark on them. His voice kept the listener sitting up straight, even while he bent and twisted the notes at the end of each passage. That ability gave his raspy tenor a chillingly emotional and haunting edge, unfiltered through popular culture.

Ralph’s repertoire was dotted with traditional songs about loss, death and longing. Ironically, the passing of this great man who sang “O Death” in the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou” leaves us with his legacy of comforting roots music.

Oh, death, where is thy sting? Thanks to Ralph Stanley’s legacy, it is not in his passing. Ralph outfoxed death itself with his wonderful music.