The Stanley Brothers deserve to be there, and every year that goes by without their induction devalues those who are enshrined.
“I’ve been angry about it. I’ve been perplexed about it. It’s been high time for a decade,” said Don Rigsby, who was 6 years old when he met Ralph Stanley and recorded a highly regarded tribute to him a couple of years ago. “If the Stanley Brothers and Ralph Stanley haven’t exceeded what it takes to get in that body, I don’t know what else they could do. What’s left for Ralph to prove?”
Ralph Stanley has nothing to prove. The music he recorded and performed with his brother Carter and the work he did on his own with the Clinch Mountain Boys stand as some of the very best bluegrass and country music ever.
Indeed, there are some folks – and I am unabashedly one of them – who rank the Stanley Brothers at the very top of the bluegrass mountain, slightly above Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
You can argue that without Monroe, bluegrass wouldn’t exist.
And you can argue that Scruggs gave the genre its signature sound.
I, in some good company, can argue that Ralph and Carter Stanley pulled it all together.
“There was always something special about the Stanley Brothers music that set them apart from the other founding fathers of bluegrass,” said Dudley Connell of the Seldom Scene. “Their truly authentic, soulful singing hit me right in the gut and inspired me to write and play music. From the heartbreaking quiver in Carter’s voice to the soaring mountain tenor of Ralph’s singing that sent shivers down my spine, the Stanley Brothers leave behind a legacy that not only changed the direction of my life, but will influence generations to come. That’s what you call immortality.”
Added Rigsby, “Monroe, with Flatt and Scruggs in the band, changed everything. But to me, the Stanley Brothers really kicked the vocals to a whole different level. It was the gold standard, and it still is.”
Hard to believe, but Carter will be gone 50 years come December. Hard to accept, but Ralph, 89, won’t be with us much longer. He has, as Rigsby put it, “lived a long, full, productive, amazing life.”
Even harder to accept: That Ralph Stanley won’t live to see his admission to the hall. It will happen, eventually. But it should have happened already, while Ralph could savor it.
Indeed, if Ralph had never played or sung another note after Carter’s death in 1966, their work would have been worthy of induction.
If he had stopped after introducing the world to Larry Sparks, Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley, he would have been worthy.
If he had hung it up after that remarkable run of recordings for Rebel Records in the 1970s. he’d be a sure bet.
But he didn’t stop. At the turn of the 21st Century, when many men his age were sitting back and enjoying retirement, Ralph helped bring legions of new fans to bluegrass through his breathtaking performance on the soundtrack of the now classic film, O Brother Where Art Thou.
And when his hands couldn’t handle the banjo any more, he kept singing.
“Ralph was a vital guy,” Rigsby said during a break in performing over the weekend at Ralph’s Hills of Home bluegrass festival. “When he passes, it’s going to be a changing of the guard.”
Singer Dave Adkins, who has performed at the festival for five years, always makes sure to stop at Carter’s nearby grave to pay homage to his favorite singer. “Carter delivered,” Adkins told me. “He just sang with such emotion.”
Ralph, he continued, “is music.” Adkins didn’t get a chance to talk to Ralph this year because the host was too ill to attend. But he knows what he would have said.
“If I could tell Ralph anything, it would just be, “Thank you for giving hope to hillbillies everywhere that you can do this music,” he said. “Ralph gave us a lot of hope. He went from nothing to being a household name in a genre that he never left.”
Then Adkins broke into a couple of lines from a song he wrote and recorded a few years ago, “Put Some Grass In It.”
“We may not play like Carter and Ralph,
but we love that Clinch Mountain sound.”
“I think it’s ridiculous that those guys aren’t in the Country Music Hall of Fame,” Adkins said. “How can that be? It’s just crazy.”
Ralph and Carter Stanley are hall of famers. The Hall of Fame just doesn’t know it yet.
It’s time the electors right that wrong.