Stanley was born in a small town called McClure in rural Southwest Virginia in 1927. Growing up, he heard his father sing church music and traditional folk songs, and his mother taught him to play banjo clawhammer style. In 1946, after graduating high school and serving in the Army for a little over a year, he started performing with his guitar-playing older brother Carter, and they formed a group called the Clinch Mountain Boys. After garnering some attention with weekly radio performances on WNVA and WCYB, the Stanley Brothers signed to Columbia Records and later King Records, achieving some success on the folk and bluegrass festival circuit.
By the mid-’60s, Carter’s health had deteriorated, and he died of cirrhosis in 1966. Although he initially contemplated giving up music, Stanley eventually decided to continue performing and fronting the Clinch Mountain Boys as a solo artist. He was given an honorary doctorate of music from Tennessee’s Lincoln Memorial University in 1976, after which he was often referred to in the bluegrass community as “Dr. Ralph.” He performed at the inaugurations of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, was given a Living Legends medal from the Library Of Congress and a National Medal Of Arts presented by the National Endowment for the Arts and President George W. Bush, and became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 2000.
In 2000, Stanley had a late-career breakthrough after his music was featured on the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The soundtrack was hugely successful, and his a cappella recording of the Appalachian dirge “O Death” earned him a 2002 Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.
Despite health problems, he continued to record and tour well into his 80s, often performing with his son Ralph Stanley II on guitar and his grandson Nathan on mandolin. He is survived by his wife of 47 years, Jimmie Stanley, along with three children, seven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.