Picture of Dr. Ralph Stanley Well into the 21st Century, Ralph Stanley (1927-2016) remained a vital and creative performer, crafting album after album of of great, timeless bluegrass. In contrast to the buoyant feel of the best Stanley Brothers material, his solo work tended towards the darker and craggier end of the bluegrass spectrum, leaning towards style's more foreboding old-timey roots. He also collaborated with dozens of younger artists in a variety of styles, proving himself as versatile as he is traditionally oriented.

Sadly, the band's success (and gruelling tour schedule) took its toll on songwriter-guitarist, Carter Stanley, who died in 1966, a tragic turn of events that stunned his younger brother, prompting a brief retirement before Ralph Stanley regrouped and reformed the old Stanley Brothers band. In the late '60s and early '70s, the Clinch Mountain Boys became a training ground for many of the top young artists in the hippie-era bluegrass revival. Dr. Ralph (the honorary degree was bestowed on him in recognition of his historic impact as an ambassador of Appalachian culture) became one of the grand old men of bluegrass and old-timey music, emerging in the 21st Century as the craggy-voiced singer of "O Death," a song which improbably won the 2001 Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance, as part of the movie/soundtrack phenomenon, O Brother Where Art Thou. Here's a quick look at the music made by Ralph Stanley over the decades as a solo artist. A separate Stanley Brothers discography can be found on another page.

The Stanley Brothers | Ralph Stanley Albums | Ralph Stanley Best-Ofs

Ralph Stanley "1971-1973" (Rebel, 1995)

Almost all of Ralph Stanley's early albums on Rebel Records are out of print on CD (although they are available on cassette or, if you're lucky enough to track them down, on the original LPs). This fine 4-CD box set collects the first six of his Rebel albums (listed below) in their entirety. The original albums were: Cry From The Cross, Something Old - Something New, Old Country Church, Plays Requests, I Want To Preach The Gospel, and I Want To Preach The Gospel. Although picking up a whole, big old box set might seem daunting, keep in mind how great Dr. Ralph has always been, and that this collection is very affordably priced. This also includes music from the 1973 album Stanley Sound Around The World, which was recorded for King Records, but which was never released in the United States.

Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys "Sing Michigan Bluegrass" (Jessup, 1971)
Although there wasn't anything particularly "Michigan" about the songs themselves, you sure can't fault the music! This early '70s lineup of the reconstituted Clinch Mountain Boys featured vocalist Roy Lee Centers (a dead ringer for Carter Stanley) as well as young'uns Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs, playing guitar, fiddle and mandolin, respectively. These early indie recordings have recently been reissued on the Varese Sarabande label's Echoes Of The Stanley Brothers CD, along with material from their second Jessup LP, reviewed below.

Ralph Stanley "Cry From The Cross" (Rebel, 1971)

Reissued as part of the 1971 - 1973 box set (above), and as a separate album on CD. This album also features the Skaggs/Keith lads on fiddle and guitar.

Ralph Stanley "Something Old - Something New" (Rebel, 1971)

Reissued as part of the 1971 - 1973 box set (above) and also as a digital-only release in 2011.

Ralph Stanley "Old Country Church" (Rebel, 1972)

Reissued as part of the 1971 - 1973 box set (above).

Ralph Stanley "Plays Requests" (Rebel, 1972)

Reissued as part of the 1971 - 1973 box set (above).

Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys "Sing Gospel Echoes Of The Stanley Brothers" (Jessup, 1973)
More fine gospel material, recorded by the early '70s lineup of the Clinch Mountain Boys, featuring Centers, Whitley and Skaggs, and the rest of this super-talented crew. These early indie recordings have recently been reissued on the Varese Sarabande label's Echoes Of The Stanley Brothers CD, along with material from the first Jessup album (reviewed above), which was recorded at the same time, back in '71, but was released a couple of years later. Top-flight stuff, of course... Recommended!

Ralph Stanley "I Want To Preach The Gospel" (Rebel, 1973)

Reissued as part of the 1971 - 1973 box set (above).

Ralph Stanley "A Man And His Music" (Rebel, 1973)

Reissued as part of the 1971 - 1973 box set (above).

Ralph Stanley "Let Me Rest On A Peaceful Mountain" (Rebel, 1975)

Ralph Stanley/Various Artists "Live At McClure" (Rebel, 1976/1992)

Various live festival performances, collected and reissued on CD. Ralph Stanley plays on some, but not all the tracks.

Ralph Stanley "Old Home Place" (Rebel, 1976)

Ralph Stanley "Clinch Mountain Gospel" (Rebel, 1977)

This album is also available on CD.

Ralph Stanley "Down Where The River Bends" (Rebel, 1978)

Ralph Stanley "I'll Wear A White Robe" (Rebel, 1980/2011)

One of many great all-gospel albums from the Ralph Stanley catalog. This edition of the band featured Charlie Sizemore, a young new singer who would go on to become a successful bandleader himself... Great stuff!

Ralph Stanley "The Stanley Sound Today" (Rebel, 1981)

Ralph Stanley "The Memory Of Your Smile" (Rebel, 1982)

Ralph Stanley "Snow Covered Mound" (Rebel, 1983)

Ralph Stanley "Child Of The King" (Rebel, 1983)

Ralph Stanley "Live! At The Old Home Place" (Rebel, 1984)

Ralph Stanley "I Can Tell You The Time" (Rebel, 1985)

Ralph Stanley "Live In Japan" (Rebel, 1985)

Live concert performances originally recorded in 1971, originally released on LP in 1985 and reissued as a 2-CD set in 1997.

Ralph Stanley "Lonesome And Blue" (Rebel, 1986)

Ralph Stanley "I'll Answer The Call" (Rebel, 1988)

Ralph Stanley & Ralph Stanley II "Like Father, Like Son" (Copper Creek, 1989)
Although he only plays on a couple of tracks (and sings lead on one), teenage Ralph Stanley, Jr. (or "Two," as they like to call him...) gets second billing on this disc, and that sprat sure looks awful cute, standing next to Pop on the front cover. This is another nice Stanley album, with some of the prettiest-sounding vocals by Dr. Ralph you're likely to hear. A sweet, relaxed set, with Curly Ray Cline on fiddle, and Ernie Thacker playing mandolin in this nice, compact five-piece ensemble. Another good'un.

Ralph Stanley "Pray For The Boys" (Rebel, 1991)

Ralph Stanley "Christmas Time With Ralph Stanley" (Freeland, 1993)

Ralph Stanley "Back To The Cross" (Freeland, 1994)

Ralph Stanley & Joe Isaacs "Gospel Gathering" (Freeland, 1995)

Ralph Stanley/Various Artists "Saturday Night & Sunday Morning" (Freeland, 1996)
Here, the well-known crusty old-timer rocked the acoustic music world on its heels with this unexpected and utterly majestic 2-CD set which features a dozens of celebrity duets with artists ranging from Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Patty Loveless, Tom T. Hall, George Jones and a slew of bluegrass stars, young and old. The collection is divided in twain, between celebratory party songs (suitable for a Saturday night hoedown) and religious material (for church the next day). Not only is it a brilliant concept, it's beautifully executed, packed with one musical gem after another. Anyone who had written Stanley off before this came out sure had to take a second look -- few artists could hope to muster the power and presence that's found here. Stanley may have sounded a little creaky around the edges, but that's only to be expected. What really matters is the emotional resonance and depth that stanley and his guests bring to bear. Far from a mere vanity project, this is a really great record, well worth searching out.

Ralph Stanley "Short Life Of Trouble: Songs Of Grayson & Whitter" (Rebel, 1996)

Reaching into the past, as only he can, Stanley pays homage to the Virginian songwriting duo of Gilliam Grayson and Henry Whitter, who are best known for the song "Train 45," a longtime standard in the bluegrass canon. Although Grayson & Whitter performed together only briefly -- from 1927-'29 -- they had a big impact on the Stanley Brothers and other bluegrass pioneers such as Bill Monroe. This is a typically stark, haunting Stanley outing... but now we get a hint as to where this style comes from. Nice record, especially since legends rarely pay tribute to little-knowns, a nice gesture, as well as a cool glimpse into the history of the bluegrass sound.

Ralph Stanley "My All In All" (Rebel, 1997)

No one else can sing a gospel tune quite like Ralph Stanley... and this all-too-brief album does not disappoint. Stanley connects to the material in a way which most young folks these days only pretend to, and his band -- anchored by Ralph, Jr. -- is solid throughout. Interesting song choices include "Jesus Is On The Mainline" and "Uncloudy Day," although hardcore fans may find themselves more powerfully drawn to lesser-know songs such as "I'm Not Ashamed" and "I Firmly Promise You." Great stuff.

Ralph Stanley & Friends "Clinch Mountain Country" (Rebel, 1997)

When you find a winning formula, stick with it. All the folks who couldn't squeeze into the Saturday Night, Sunday Morning project make an appearance here, on an album that has a more pronounced country feel to it. And what a lineup! Plenty of real hicks, ranging from hardcore honkytonkers John Anderson and Dwight Yoakam to bluegrass gals Laurie Lewis and Claire Lynch. Stanley brings in old-timers like George Jones and Porter Wagoner, as well as youngsters like Diamond Rio and Gillian Welch, dipping into the Top 40 and alt.country wells with equal ease. Even raspy old Bob Dylan makes an appearance, for a duet on "The Lonesone River," where it's difficult to tell who's feeling creakier, Dr. Ralph or Bob. Folks to keep your eye on: songwriter Jim Lauderdale and Ralph Stanley II, who keep the momentum going on albums of their own (see below). Nice record, highly recommended!

Ralph Stanley & Jim Lauderdale "I Feel Like Singing Today" (Rebel/Dualtone, 1999)

This is a really, really, surprisingly great record. Alterna-country performer-cum-Top 40 songwriting star Jim Lauderdale says he's been a Stanley Brothers fan since he was a teenager, and it's clear listening to this disc that he has a real feel for the style. But Lauderdale's take on bluegrass is unique: he doesn't exactly follow the same path as other Stanley devotees might. As with his country material, his bluegrass songs run slightly off-kilter, taking strange momentary diversions and digressions. For the most part, he sings heart songs, with a couple of well-chosen gospel tunes thrown in for good measure, but his original tunes are a little bit weird, and a little bit haphazard, sort of in a throwback to the asymmetrical meters of the pre-bluegrass old-timey music. What's amazing is how well his style meshes with that of a hyper-traditionalist like Ralph Stanley, and how original his approach is. The two sound totally at ease with each other, and even though the song structures are sometimes a little weird, it all sounds completely fluid and natural. In addition to a bunch of Lauderdale originals, there are also a couple of collaborations with Dreadful Grate lyricist Robert Hunter, and well-chosen covers of songs by the like of Alfred E. Brumley and Harold Hensley, as well as the expected, obligatory Stanley Brothers tune. It's all really good. Highly recommended.

Ralph Stanley "While The Ages Roll On" (Rebel, 2000)

Another fine all-gospel album, with more of that super-spooky fatalism that Stanley captures so well.

Ralph Stanley "Cry From The Cross" (Rebel, 1971/2001)
A reissue of Stanley's first album for the Rebel label, recorded back in 1971. (See review above.)

Ralph Stanley/Various Artists "Clinch Mountain Sweethearts" (Rebel, 2001)

Ralph Stanley & Jim Lauderdale "Lost In The Lonesome Pines" (Dualtone, 2002)
The followup to the first Stanley-Lauderdale album is nothing if not even more fabulous, if for no other reason than that there are even more of Lauderdale's compositions on here. Yeah, sure, there's one Bill Monroe cover, but otherwise it's all new, original material. There are a couple more collaborations with Robert Hunter, as well as with the under-recognized country songwriter, Shawn Camp. Once again, Lauderdale's unique, slightly askew take on bluegrass and old-timey music is both wholly convincing and wholly original. It's fun to listen to, but also a bit of a mind-bender when you realize how unconventional these songs are, and yet how soulful and authentic sounding -- it's almost as if some Tom Waits-y bohemian oddball had been plunked down in the Appalachians a century ago, ala "A Connecticutt Yankee," and had rewritten the bluegrass canon, starting back in the year zero. It's cool stuff. Highly recommended.

Ralph Stanley "Ralph Stanley" (Columbia/DMZ, 2002)
(Produced by T Bone Burnett)

As bluegrass music's reigning elder statesman, Ralph Stanley is seen by many as a conservative force, preserving the heritage of Appalachian folk music against the ravages of commercialism. But he's also proved a remarkably adaptable stylist, as heard on his latest record, produced for the Coen Brothers' new DMZ label, which captures Dr. Ralph in an unexpectedly mellow folksong setting. The rounded, melodic arrangements come courtesy of veteran acoustic pickers such as Norman Blake and Stuart Duncan, who play with a delicacy that may feel unfamiliar to Stanley's hardcore fans. Producer T Bone Burnett adds his own sense of warmth and a depth of texture that is not always apparent in Stanley's more rugged bluegrass outings. It's all pure Stanley, but with a softened, Carter Family quietness.

Ralph Stanley "Live At McCabe's Guitar Shop" (DCN, 2002)
A fine live set, recorded at one of California's most revered folk music watering holes, McCabe's Guitar Shop, in Santa Monica. This leisurely performance runs through a wide swath of Stanley's repertoire, touching on gospel and secular material, and includes tried'n'true stage patter, and half-gruff/half-jovial introductions for all the band members. It's a great snapshot of Stanley's live shows, the purposefully old-fashioned showmanship, and the still-astonishing vigor of this indefatigable old pro. Recommended.

Ralph Stanley "Shine On" (Rebel, 2005)
Edging his way up towards eighty years of age, Ralph Stanley remains remarkably undiminished as a performer, as this sterling set of gospel tunes will attest. This is a strong, soulful collection that showcases Stanley's band at its best, including guitarist James Alan Shelton and Stanley's son, Ralph Stanley II, who continues to grow as a superior country-folk vocalist. Dr. Ralph himself is in fine form as well, delivering one of his most powerful assured performances in recent years. Folks who get turned off by the gospel message will want to sit this one out, but for fans of the style -- or just fans of great bluegrass -- this one's a gem.

Ralph Stanley "A Distant Land To Roam: Songs Of The Carter Family" (DMZ/Columbia, 2006)

Ralph Stanley "A Mother's Prayer" (Rebel, 2011)
(Produced by Ralph Stanley II)

Year after year, decade after decade, Dr. Ralph Stanley records some of the finest gospel songs in the bluegrass canon... and with continually surprising strength for a man of his years. This album opens with bandmember John Rigsby singing lead on the title track... I thought, uh-oh, he's just going to hand the reins to the young'uns on this one, but the rest of the record features Stanley himself, sounding heartfelt and robust, bringing hymns and prayers to life in a way that no one else can. As on many of Stanley's later recordings, the band holds back and underplays so they don't overshadow the star. But you'll hardly mind: these gospel records aren't about flash and fire, they're about sorrow, souls and joy, and this disc ranks right up there with some of Stanley's finest work in the genre. Recommended.

Ralph Stanley & Ralph Stanley II "Side By Side" (Rebel, 2014)
(Produced by Ralph Stanley II & John Rigby)

A heartwarming set with a father-son duo that has performed together for decades, usually with "Two" taking more of a background role. It's an interesting combination: on his own solo albums, Ralph, Jr. has indulged (pleasantly) in a tilt towards straight country music, but here he's strictly backing dad, and making room for the fragile, yet still commanding voice of bluegrass music's greatest living legend. The elder Stanley sings tenor but apparently doesn't play banjo on this album, with modest, gingerly accompaniment by John Rigby on fiddle, Steve Sparkman picking banjo and Ralph, Jr. on guitar. Like mant recent Stanley albums, this reflects the fragility and depth of Stanley's music -- it seems miraculous he's still with, much less still touring and making records. Another fine album with resonant material, both secular and religious... Keep 'em coming, Dr. Stanley!

The Stanley Brothers | Ralph Stanley Albums | Ralph Stanley Best-Ofs

Hick Music Index

Thanks to Mark Freeman of Rebel Records for his help with this discography.

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