The Bluegrass of King, The King of Bluegrass

Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley might not have become such a heavyweight without King Records

Musical nicknames are an interesting way to rank contenders atop any hierarchy. King of Rock and Roll. King of Pop. Godfather of Soul.

Bill Monroe is widely recognized as the Father of Bluegrass, and so, in that context, perhaps we can consider Ralph Stanley as the genre’s kindly Uncle — the guy who teaches us about life and ourselves without inflicting the unflinching discipline and judgmental subjectivity of our old man.

But there’s another line of logic to pursue. If Monroe was the King of Bluegrass, the fact remains that the king is dead and the throne can’t remain empty, the crown unworn. Perhaps it’s time to coronate a new King of Bluegrass, and if so the only true heir is Dr. Ralph Stanley.

There’s no question that Monroe altered the landscape of Bluegrass and that his influence will ripple through the genre for generations to come. When Stanley obtained his first banjo as a teenager — traded to him by an aunt in exchange for groceries from his parents’ store — and formed a band with brother Carter, the pair started out singing Bill Monroe songs.

But it’s equally true that Ralph Stanley, at age 81, has been the weathered face of Bluegrass in the new millennium. His contributions to the Coen Brothers’ triumphant O Brother, Where Art Thou? were essential to the soundtrack’s overwhelming success; its sales figures far outstripped the movie’s box office receipts. And Stanley’s rendition of “O Death” at 2002’s Grammy Awards — where he ultimately won Best Male Country Vocal Performance — was one of the most spine-tingling moments in the ceremony’s history.

With one song from one album, Stanley inspired a whole new generation of fans to seek out the joy of Bluegrass. (For first-hand proof, check out CEA nominee Katie Laur's "Ode to Ralph Stanley.")

Stanley’s influence — with the Clinch Mountain Boys, his partnership with Carter in the Stanley Brothers, on his own and as mentor for talents like Charlie Sizemore, Larry Sparks, Ricky Skaggs and the late Keith Whitley — is unassailable. His inductions into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor and Grand Ole Opry don’t go nearly far enough in recognizing his impact.

Still, it’s not Stanley’s sizable global accomplishments that will be honored at Sunday night’s Cincinnati Entertainment Awards but his local connection to King Records on the occasion of the label’s 65th anniversary.

The Stanley Brothers signed to Syd Nathan’s eclectic Cincinnati label in the late ’50s during a period when old-time mountain music was waning and more contemporary Country was rising. Even so, Nathan had an intuitive methodology concerning his stable of artists and followed his instincts when signing the Stanley Brothers, who had broken up briefly in 1951 when Carter Stanley left to front Monroe’s band.

“I think Syd or an A&R guy may have sought out the Stanleys,” says Shake It Records co-owner and local King authority Darren Blase. “Around that time, King had lost some of their edge in the Country market because they were focusing more on R&B. But by bringing the Stanleys on board, they didn’t really have to spend much time trying to develop the group since they were as synonymous with Bluegrass as Bill Monroe. They could hit the ground running and recapture some of the Country market.”

The move was a typically cagey Nathan maneuver, as the Stanley Brothers staged something of a Bluegrass revival with their King records (they were also simultaneously signed to Starday, a more common practice 40 years ago). After Carter Stanley’s passing in 1966 from liver cancer and much reflection on how to proceed, Ralph Stanley revived the Clinch Mountain Boys and recorded another pair of classics for King (1968’s Over on Sunset Hill and 1969’s Hills of Home) before embarking on the next phase of his illustrious career.

It’s impossible to overestimate King Records’ importance to Ralph Stanley’s career. Stanley was grief stricken over his brother’s loss in 1966 and, having always considered Carter to be the better writer and singer, was deeply conflicted over continuing as a solo act. Stanley has widely credited Nathan with convincing him to soldier on alone after Carter’s death, so it’s a perfectly reasonable assumption that without Syd Nathan’s encouragement and faith Ralph Stanley might well have become little more than a footnote in Bluegrass history.

As Blase notes, Stanley’s King association places him in the good company of a number of stellar artists from the label’s roster — James Brown, Hank Ballard, Hank Penny, Grandpa Jones, the Delmore Brothers, Little Willie John — with an enduring and influential legacy. Four decades after leaving Cincinnati’s premiere label, Stanley stands at the apex of Bluegrass accomplishment, the gold standard by which the genre is measured.

“Bill Monroe invented it, Carter Stanley had the best lead voice in all of Bluegrass and Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs defined the two major styles of banjo within the genre,” Blase says succinctly. “Plus Ralph’s a helluva a singer, too.”

Amen, brother. Hail the new King.

RALPH STANLEY AND THE CLINCH MOUNTAIN BOYS close the 2008 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards with a 30-minute set. Note: The event is SOLD OUT, but a waiting list is being started for tickets to see Ralph Stanley perform. Get details here.