When Fitzhugh Stanley, a widower with six children, married Lucy Smith, a widow with one child, they could not have dreamed that they would become the parents of two of the greatest musicians the world has ever known. Carter Stanley was born on August 27, 1925 and Ralph on February 25, 1927. Mrs. Stanley had eleven brothers and sisters. All played musical instruments. Though Mr. Stanley did not play an instrument, he was a singer. Carter and Ralph listened to much music on the radio during their young days, hearing the Carter Family, the Monroe Brothers, The Blue Sky Boys, The Delmore Brothers, and many more. They would often take sticks of wood and pretend they were playing. There was much music for them to hear at home and in the area of Dickinson County, Virginia where they lived. Homemade music provided a wonderful source of entertainment at numerous gatherings. They attended the Primitive Baptist Church, where Carter and Ralph learned many of the songs they would eventually record. The church did not allow the use of musical instruments, so all of the singing was a cappella, a style that Ralph would use to great advantage in later years.
Carter received a guitar when he was thirteen, and when Ralph was offered a choice between a pig or a banjo, his choice was obvious. Ralph learned the clawhammer style of banjo from his mother in 1938, and Carter learned to play rhythm guitar using a thumb pick. Before very long they had formed a neighborhood band, The Lazy Ramblers, with Jewel Martin, mandolin, and Richard Nunley, fiddle. They would play at neighbor’s homes, at a local school between the acts of a play, and occasionally at dances. Their first radio performance was in Elizabethton, Tennessee, and they played their first show at a Republican Convention in the Greenwood, Virginia Grade School. A rather odd event occurred during this period when Carter beat Ralph in a banjo contest in Grundy, Virginia.
Military service beckoned and Carter went into the Army in 1943, followed by Ralph in 1945, just a few days after he finished high school. Carter was discharged from service in March, 1946, and when he returned home, he joined Roy Sykes and the Blue Ridge Mountain Boys. On his way home from the Army on October 15, 1946, Ralph stopped at radio Station WNVA, Norton, Virginia, where Carter was playing with Sykes. Carter and Ralph sang a song on the program, and Ralph joined the band. This arrangement proved unsatisfactory. Since Sykes also picked the banjo, Ralph was only allowed to play the 5-string on certain songs. Ralph considered attending veterinary school on the G. I. Bill of Rights, but he told Carter that he would stay if they formed their own band.
They gave Roy Sykes a two week notice, then formed the first band that used the name: The Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Pee Wee Lambert, who had been with the Sykes band, decided to go with Carter and Ralph, and they chose Bobby Sumner to play fiddle. Their music in those early days was pretty much a copy of Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, mainly due to Pee Wee’s fascination with the Monroe sound. Ralph had played the banjo in a two finger style, until he heard Earl Scruggs playing the banjo with Monroe. He quickly adopted the three finger style, finding that it came to him naturally. The vocal structure of their harmony singing was usually Carter, lead, Ralph, tenor on their duets, and, on the trios Pee Wee would sing tenor and Ralph, baritone. They also did trios with Carter, lead, Ralph, tenor, and Pee Wee, high baritone.
They first had a radio show on the same station they had played with Sykes, then in December, 1946, they moved to WCYB, Bristol, Tennessee, joining the “Farm ‘N Fun Time” program. Bobby Sumner had left the band by the time they made their first recordings for Rich-R-Tone Records in 1947 at radio station WOPI, Bristol. Personnel for the first recording session were, Carter, guitar, Ralph, banjo, Pee Wee, mandolin, and Leslie Keith, fiddle. Ray Lambert sang bass on the two quartet numbers recorded, with the other two songs being Carter and Ralph duets. The second session had Keith on fiddle, and on the third session former Blue Grass Boy Art Wooten played the fiddle. The songs recorded at these three sessions were released on an album, (Melodeon MLP-7322) The Stanley Brothers: Their Original Recordings, in 1965.
While working in Raleigh, North Carolina they signed with Columbia Records. Their first recording session took place on March 1, 1949 in the Castle Studio, Nashville, Tennessee. The eight songs recorded included the now classic “White Dove” and “Little Glass of Wine.” Band members were Carter, guitar, Ralph, banjo, Pee Wee, mandolin, Bobby Sumner, fiddle and Jay Hughes, bass. Rounder Records reissued songs from these sessions on two albums (Rou-SS-09 and 10) The Stanley Brothers, The Columbia Sessions, 1949-1950, Volume 1 and 2 in 1981. The material appeared on a Bear Family CD in 1992.
There was a brief period in 1951 when the Stanley Brothers did not have a band. During this time, Carter played guitar and sang lead with Bill Monroe, recording two songs on July 1, and four songs on July 6, as a member of the Blue Grass Boys: Ralph had been injured in an automobile accident on August 17, 1951, and when he recovered, the Stanley Brothers resumed playing together.
They moved to Mercury records with the first session at Universal Studio, Nashville, Tennessee, on August 9, 1953. Pee Wee had departed the group in the early fifties. Jim Williams was now playing mandolin, with Art Stamper on fiddle and George Shuffler on bass. The August 29, 1954 session for Mercury at Bradley Studio in Nashville included one song that was not planned. Bill Monroe visited the Stanleys in the studio and suggested that they record one of his songs, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Bill felt it would be a good “seller,” because it had just been recorded by Elvis Presley. Personnel for that session, in addition to Carter and Ralph were Bill Lowe, mandolin, Joe Meadows, fiddle, Charlie Cline, lead guitar, and “Lightning” Chance, bass. They continued to record for Mercury Records until the Fall of 1958, when they did a session for Starday Records at the WCYB radio Station. They had remained as part of the “Farm ‘N Fun Time” program, with a few short stays at other radio stations, until they moved to Live Oak, Florida in 1958, where they started the “Suwannee River Jamboree.” They also did television five nights a week for Jim Walter Homes throughout four southern states. The acoustic lead guitar playing of Bill Napier, George Shuffler and others became a big part of the “Stanley Sound” in the middle fifties. They signed with King records in 1958 and recorded for that company for several years, with some sessions for Starday, and one session for Blue Ridge Records in the summer of 1959. Their albums on King, Starday, Starday-King, and Gusto have been reissued several times in various formats, including compact disc.
They continued their shows in Florida until their traveling schedule just became too much to keep up with, eventually having to give up their television work. They recorded at Johnny’s Used Cars in Baltimore, Maryland for Wango Records in December, 1963.
At the first Wango session Carter only played the guitar, because he was too hoarse to sing. Jack Cooke, who joined Ralph playing bass on June 23, 1970, a job he still holds, sang lead and harmony on the session. Others involved in the session were, Ralph, banjo, lead and tenor vocals, George Shuffler, lead guitar, lead and harmony vocals, and Henry Dockery, bass fiddle, and harmony vocals. They recorded again for Wango in 1964, and this time Carter was in fine shape. Wango albums 103, 105, and 106 were released under the name John’s Gospel Quartet and 104 as John’s Country Quartet. These have been reissued on County Records 753, The Unclouded Day; 739, Long Journey Home; 754, Stanley Brothers, Volume 4; and 738, That Little Old Country Church House.
The list of musicians, in addition to those already named, that played or recorded with the Stanley Brothers, reads like a “Who’s Who of Bluegrass.” Les Woodie, Ralph Mayo, Chubby Anthony, Benny Martin, “Howdy” Forrester, Vernon Derrick, Red Stanley, Curley Lambert, Bill Napier, Bobby Osborne, Earl Taylor, Ernie Newton, Curley King, Al Elliott, who also played “Towser Murphy,” Johnny Bonds, “Chick” Stripling, who tap danced and did comedy, Larry Sparks, and Vernon McIntyre, Jr. The Stanley Brothers recordings have been released on more than eighty five albums.
The Stanley Brothers unique style, which has been called “Mountain Bluegrass,” endeared them to people around the world. Once they moved beyond copying Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers achieved their greatness by producing an identifiable sound: Carter wrote many, many great songs that are now considered Bluegrass classics.
They toured Europe in 1966. Their appearance in the Washington D. C. area the same year motivated the issue of a small newsletter. Vince and Diane Sims of Rockville, Maryland, and others were very concerned when the Stanley Brothers appearance attracted so few people. When they found that the people did not know about the show, because of little or no advertisement, they started a newsletter to inform Bluegrass people about concerts. From its beginnings in July 1966 on a hand cranked mimeograph machine in the Sims’ basement, it eventually became a Magazine, with Diane Sims as it’s first editor. That small “Newsletter” grew into the number one Bluegrass Music publication in the world, Bluegrass Unlimited magazine, now under the direction of Peter V. Kuykendall, who has been Editor and General Manager since 1970. Mr. Kuykendall also compiled a discography of the Stanley Brothers in 1961. The book The Stanley Brothers: A Preliminary Discography by Gary B. Reid, issued by Copper Creek Publications in 1984, is a continuation of that work.
Carter Stanley began to experience some serious health problems in the early to mid sixties, but he would continually tell Ralph, “I’ll be all right, don’t worry about me.” During their last years together, Carter, who was a fine band emcee, encouraged Ralph to introduce more songs on stage. Carter passed away on December 1, 1966 and was buried at their old home place, where Ralph hosts a Bluegrass festival each year. The last public appearance of the Stanley Brothers and their Clinch Mountain Boys occurred on October 21, 1966 in Hazel Green, Kentucky.
Ralph, hit hard by Carter’s death, for a while considered retiring from the music business: Ralph, however, chose Larry Sparks in February, 1967 to play guitar and sing lead, and while no one could ever replace Carter, Larry was an excellent choice. He had played lead guitar and sang baritone with the Stanley Brothers on a part time basis, knew all of their songs, and sang in the Carter Stanley style. The other members of that first edition of Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, had been with the Stanley Brothers until Carter’s death: “Curly” Ray Cline, fiddle, and Melvin Goins, playing either bass or rhythm guitar. Larry Sparks stayed with Ralph for three years. He has since pursued a very successful career with his own group, The Lonesome Ramblers, using what he learned from the Stanleys to create his own popular style: Curly Ray played fiddle for Ralph until his emotion laden retirement on Memorial Day, 1993. Melvin Goins plays guitar and sings lead, teaming with his brother Ray, as The Goins Brothers. Ralph Stanley moved from Live Oak, Florida back to Virginia in 1968, where he still lives.
Ralph Stanley carries on the tradition that he and Carter started many years ago, and has recorded in excess of forty five albums, tapes and compact discs, a total of some 130 Stanley Brothers and Ralph Stanley records, and this total does not include their many 78RPM and 45RPM records. Ralph’s tribute to Carter, (King 1069) The Hills of Home, has brought tears to the eyes of their fans around the world. Several musicians that have helped Ralph to keep the “Stanley Sound” alive: Larry Sparks, Jack Cooke, Curly Ray Cline, Roy Lee Centers, Junior Blankenship, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Sammy Adkins, and Ricky Lee, just to name a few. Ralph’s 1993 double CD, Saturday Night/Sunday Morning, featured many of the stars of country and bluegrass music paying tribute by singing duets with Stanley. Newsweek called it an “autumnal masterpiece.”
The Stanley Brothers survived the struggling years of keeping a band together and moving from one radio station to another to leave the world a legacy of “Mountain Style Bluegrass” Music. Their distinctive vocals with Carter’s emotional lead voice and Ralph’s soulful tenor provided the heart of their music, with the lead instruments always sticking to the melody of the song. Their career as The Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys lasted from 1946 until 1966, and they have received many honors for their music. None was more deserved that their induction into SPBGMA’s Preservation Hall of Greats in 1985. Melvin Goins, Larry Sparks, and Bobby Osborne, who played with the Stanley Brothers, have also joined that very select group. The Stanley Brothers are also members of the Bluegrass Hall Of Fame and were elected to IBMA’s Hall Of Honor in 1992.