Ralph Stanley led a storied career in music for nearly 70 years before his passing in 2016. 50 of those years were as the solo band leader of his group, the Clinch Mountain Boys. The lion’s share of the recordings he made during this time were with Rebel Records, 35 in all to be exact! A pair of LPs released by Rebel in 1970 – live recordings of the Stanley Brothers – made Ralph aware of the label. Evidently he liked the way the company did business and in February of 1971, he recorded his first album for the label.
The debut release was a gospel album called Cry From The Cross. It remains a career highlight. Helping with album was a top-notch version of the band which included the ever ebullient fiddler Curly Ray Cline and stalwart bass player Jack Cooke. Playing rhythm guitar and singing lead was a Kentucky musician named Roy Lee Centers; he bore an uncanny resemblance to Ralph’s best singing partner, his late brother Carter. With Centers in the band, Ralph was able to make near carbon copies of material from the best days of the Stanley Brothers. Completing the group was a pair of talented teenagers named Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs. The disc was named Album of Year in a survey conducted by one of bluegrass music’s top magazines.
And the hits kept coming! Over a two-year period, from 1971 to 1973, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys recorded eight projects. A few were albums that spotlighted the sidemen but all showed an immensely talented group at the top of their game. Among the highlights were Something Old Something New; Old Country Church; Plays Requests; I Want To Preach The Gospel; and A Man And His Music.
A number of great pickers and singers passed through Ralph’s band over the years. Keith Whitley, who enjoyed a successful career in country music during the 1980s, sang lead for Ralph during the middle 1970s. He appeared on four albums: Hills of Home, a 2-LP set called Live! At McClure, Old Home Place, and a spirited gospel outing named Clinch Mountain Gospel. Other fine singers included Charlie Sizemore, Sammy Adkins, Ernie Thacker, and Ralph’s son Ralph Stanley II and grandson Nathan Stanley.
Ralph’s career received a significant boost in the late 1990s with the release of Clinch Mountain Country, a 2-CD set that paired him with many of bluegrass and country’s top artists such as George Jones, Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam, Ricky Skaggs, Bob Dylan, Joe Diffie, Alison Krauss, Kathy Mattea, and many more. The album snagged the International Bluegrass Music Association’s awards for Album of the Year and Recorded Event of the Year. The concept was duplicated a few years later when Clinch Mountain Sweethearts joined Ralph with the leading ladies of bluegrass and country.
In a livelihood dotted with so many recorded milestones, it’s hard to pick favorites. From the many gospel projects Ralph released – a genre that was near and dear to him, 1985’s I Can Tell You the Time, with Charlie Sizemore, is a fine representation. Three of his final gospel releases for Rebel include Shine On, A Mother’s Prayer, and a retrospective collection entitled Mountain Preacher’s Child. Among the recent non-gospel offerings is a pair of budget priced CDs that recall some of Ralph’s early recorded triumphs for Rebel. They are appropriately titled Old Songs and Ballads, Volume One and Volume Two.