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Ralph Stanley, Bluegrass Legend, Dies At 89

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're going to take a few minutes now to remember a legend of bluegrass music, Ralph Stanley.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Stanley died yesterday at the age of 89.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHILDREN, GO WHERE I SEND THEE")

RALPH STANLEY: (Singing) Children, go where I send thee. Oh, lordy. How will I send thee? Oh, I'm going to send thee one by one for the one was a little bitty baby born...

SHAPIRO: The musician Larry Sparks knew Stanley for decades. He heard of his friend's death before going on stage at the ROMP Bluegrass Festival in Kentucky and broke the news to the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARRY SPARKS: Sadly to hear about 15 minutes ago, he passed away. He's been a part of me so long in my heart and soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHILDREN, GO WHERE I SEND THEE")

STANLEY: (Singing) Born, children born in Bethlehem.

CORNISH: Ralph Stanley's trademark was his voice. Some people called it lonesome. The Atlantic once said it sounded like the woods.

SHAPIRO: As for Stanley himself, he said I sing it the way I feel it, just the way it comes out. Ralph Stanley was born in the countryside of southwestern Virginia in 1927. His dad worked in logging and, as he told WHYY's Fresh Air in 2002, his mother taught him the banjo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

STANLEY: My mother played a little bit of the old time clawhammer. She tuned the banjo up and picked one tune for me, and it just become natural to me. When she picked it, I just started and picked it, too.

CORNISH: He started out performing music with his older brother Carter and their group, the Clinch Mountain Boys.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW MOUNTAIN GIRLS CAN LOVE")

CLINCH MOUNTAIN BOYS: (Singing) Get down, boys. Go back home, back to the girl you love.

SHAPIRO: Carter always sang lead. Ralph was the shy one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

STANLEY: Oh, I dreaded going on the stage more than anything.

CORNISH: And when his brother Carter died in December 1966 of liver failure, Ralph wasn't sure he'd keep playing music. Here he is again in that Fresh Air interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

STANLEY: You know, I wanted to carry on, but I didn't know whether I could or not. But I got cards and letters by the hundreds, phone calls, telling me - said please don't quit. So that, you know - that picked me up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAZING GRACE")

STANLEY: (Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.

SHAPIRO: Stanley played for decades and had his biggest mainstream success in his 70s. That's when he recorded the song "O Death" as part of the soundtrack to the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "O DEATH")

STANLEY: (Singing) O death, O death, won't you spare me over 'til another year...

CORNISH: Ralph Stanley won a Grammy for his performance. The album introduced him to new audiences and reinvigorated his career.

SHAPIRO: For Stanley, the music was always there, even in the bad times. As he wrote in his memoir, singing was a way to keep yourself company when you got to feeling lonesome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURN BACK, TURN BACK")

STANLEY: (Singing) Turn back, turn back ye wayward pilgrim. Come back, come back to the peaceful shore. Turn back, turn back for the savior's waiting to rescue you from the ranks of woe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.