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Ralph Stanley, RIP

On June 23, Ralph Stanley died. He was 89.

He was the last of the founders of bluegrass music. This is an American invention, named after the group that backed up Bill Monroe, the Bluegrass Boys. Monroe’s music was “old timey” until the arrival of Earl Scruggs, who revolutionized banjo picking. Scruggs joined the Bluegrass Boys in 1945. He started his own group in 1948, the Foggy Mountain Boys.

Ralph and his brother Carter were right behind Monroe. They started the Clinch Mountain Boys in 1946. They played together until Carter’s death in 1966. They are generally regarded as the second bluegrass band.

Bluegrass was a regional phenomenon until the Beverly Hillbillies hit the culture in the fall of 1962. Flatt and Scruggs did the theme song. Then in 1967 they did the music for Bonnie and Clyde, which worked wonderfully as aesthetic background. Of course, Bonnie and Clyde died in 1934, and bluegrass was invented in 1945, but that’s close enough for Hollywood. It’s the thought that counts . . . and the soundtrack royalties.

Stanley kept touring after Carter died. The group never achieved the fame or income of Flatt and Scruggs, but it remained on the circuit the whole time.

Then, in 2000, lightning struck: O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Coen Brothers movie became a sensation, which itself was something of a miracle. Some of us saw George Clooney for the first time.

In the movie, there is a scene where the Ku Klux Klan has gathered for a lynching. The Wizard sings “O Death,” a cappella. Stanley sang it. It was, as many noted at the time, haunting. Stanley tells this story.

(For the rest of my obituary, click the link.)