Legendary bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley died Thursday night at the age of 89. According to a message posted to Facebook by his grandson, Stanley succumbed to skin cancer after a long battle.
The Bluegrass Hall of Famer and Grand Ole Opry member has a legacy that stretches back to the 1940s, but his musical contributions to the Coen Brother’s 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? introduced him to a new generation of fans.
Known affectionately as “Doctor Ralph” after receiving an honorary Doctorate of Music from Lincoln Memorial University in 1976, Stanley was born in Dickenson County, Virginia, on Feb. 25, 1927. According to music lore, Stanley’s mother offered to give him a pig or a banjo. He chose the instrument, which he ultimately used to influence generations of musicians with his distinctive picking style.
He began his career in 1946 playing with brother Carter in The Clinch Mountain Boys, earning regular spots on several Virginia radio stations. The group were signed to a number of major records labels, releasing hits including “I’m Lonesome Without You” and “Memories of Mother.”
After Carter Stanley’s premature death in 1966, Ralph soldiered on with the band. “I pulled myself up, and I made up my mind that music was all I could do, all I ever was meant to do, and I was going to do it,” he wrote in his 2009 autobiography Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times.
His inclusion on the bestselling soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? helped cement his reputation in the new millennium, and his rendition of “O Death” earned him his first Grammy.
Stanley’s music has been lauded by rock legends like Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, and Elvis Costello. Kyle Young, CEO of Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, issued a statement Friday morning: “Ralph Stanley was elemental. His voice was freshwater, wind, sky, and stone. He brought mountain music into the twenty-first century.”
Dierks Bentley, who released his own bluegrass album Up on the Ridge in 2010, paid tribute to the musician on Instagram.
“Ugh… like a punch to the heart,” he wrote. “Thank you God for Ralph Stanley. Thoughts and prayers for his family.”
•With reporting by NANCY KRUH