The beginnings of country and bluegrass music are populated with successful family bands. Perhaps no band was more successful than The Stanley Brothers, made up of Carter and Ralph Stanley. They first formed this band in 1946 and stayed active for 20 years as they further refined the distinct sound of what would become known as Bluegrass music.
The brothers were born in the Clinch Mountain area of Dickenson County, Virginia. They spent their formative years on a small farm near McClure, Virginia. Like many families in the area at that time, music was a daily part of life. They had a local radio station which brought them the sounds of the Monroe Brothers, J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers and all the other performers on the Grand Ole Opry.
This constant exposure to music lead the brothers to form their first band, the Lazy Ramblers. They failed to live up to their name as they soon began performing on a radio station in Tennessee.
Their musical careers were cut off at this point due to WWII. When they returned from the service they would truly begin to make their name in music and Bluegrass.
Taking a cue from the Monroe Brothers, they formed their band with the name of their family right there out front. They also took a lot of influence from the sound of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys band.
The basic lineup was always Carter on guitar and lead vocals, with Ralph playing banjo and singing a high tenor vocal. Other band members from their initial lineup included:
- Darrell Lambert on mandolin
- Bobby Sumner on fiddle
The band soon saw success as they performed on a radio station in Bristol, Tennessee in 1946 as part of the famous Farm and Fun Time radio show. Just 8 months later they made their first recording for Rich-R-Tone Records. They sold well regionally and made a number of recordings.
During all of this time, Ralph was playing the banjo in a two finger style. 1948 marked the year he first began using a three-finger, or ‘Scruggs style,’ that we now more closely associate with Bluegrass music.
In the early months of 1951, The Stanley Brothers had a chance to patch up relations with their hero, Bill Monroe, who was angry with bands who he felt stole his style of music, as they played a number of shows together. This went on until Ralph was in a serious car accident in August 1951 that almost ended his career.
Bluegrass saw a dip in popularity during the 1950s. This caused two things to happen: first, the brothers broke up and worked for Ford Motor Company in Detroit. This was short lived as the boys were soon back together again and performing in Live Oak, Florida as part of another radio show. They were a part of the three hour Suwannee River Jamboree radio show from 1958 until 1962.
The folk revival of the mid 1960’s saw the brothers tour all over Europe in 1966. They returned home to perform right up until Carter’s death in December of that year. Their name continues to ring on as their music is appreciated by Bluegrass lovers, as well as Ralph continuing to keep their music alive as part of the Clinch Mountain Boys band, who last toured in 2010.