Whittle: Dr. Stanley packed Arts Center & world venues

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O. Death: "Won't you spare me over till another year.

"I'm death I come to take the soul.

"Leave the body, and leave it cold."


Emotions of fans around the world dimmed the night of June 23, 2016 when bluegrass giant Ralph Stanley died, having performed his hit song "O Death' in his high-pitched voice for the last time.

Word of the legends' passing spread like wildfire through Nashville's music family, as evidenced during a performance that fateful evening by the historic Chuck Wagon Gang at Smyrna (TN.) Parkway Baptist Church.

"With the passing of Dr. Ralph Stanley, we've lost another icon of original Americana bluegrass music from the Appalachia Mountains," commented Stan Hill, tenor singer for the Gang and native of East Tennessee's mountains.

"An humble king" is how Nashville bluegrass icon Ricky Skaggs described the unique song stylist from Virginia's mountains. Dr. Stanley mentored young Skaggs early in his career.

"Ralph Stanley is the patron saint of mountain music," crowned Nashville "Renaissance Man" Marty Stuart while on tour in Pennsylvania and Virginia upon learning of Dr. Stanley's death. "He was a master architect of country music."

"Ralph Stanley stayed true to what he was," broadcaster Eddie Stubbs said in a tribute over the WSM "Air Castle of the South" Radio. ""He loved his parents, who often sang at their church in the mountains."

Recognized Nashville music historian/banjoist Jeremy Preston Stephens praised Dr. Stanley for "staying true to his roots."

"Ralph Stanley stayed true dating back to the way his mother and others made music at their Primitive Baptist Church in the Appalachia Mountains," defined Stephens, who heads his own bluegrass group "High Fidelity" with his wife Corinna Rose. "His hit song, 'O Death' goes way way back in the mountain tradition.

"That first generation of American bluegrass performers were simply trying to make a living," song-stylist Stephens noted. "The Stanleys formed the Clinch Mountain Boys in 1946. They created a unique three-part harmony with his brother Carter singing lead, Ralph performed tenor and Pee Wee Lambert sang an even higher part of their harmony."

When song writer/lead man Carter died in 1966, Ralph was not confident he could continue the music group because of shyness.

"Carter had been the most progressive performer of the group. When he died, Ralph took the group farther back to Appalachia's original true high-pitched sound," described Stephens, who was crowned a champion banjoist at Uncle Dave Macon Days in 2015.

The original Stanley Brothers' had the group's first heyday of popularity in the 1940s and 1950s.

"Like Bill Monroe, Dr. Stanley never apologized about his style of music," Stephens credited. "The (2000) movie 'Oh Brother, Where Art Thou" and Dr. Ralph's songs on the sound track helped rejuvenate bluegrass, especially to a younger generation of fans."

The aged artist told The Associated Press in 2002, that younger people were coming to his shows featuring "old time music."

"I wish it had come 25 years sooner," he said. "I am still enjoying it, but I would have had longer to enjoy it."

The bluegrass legend lived out his a cappella "O Death" dirge, when he died, at age 89, after a long battle with cancer.

Dr. Stanley's post-movie popularity resulted in a "packed house" at the Arts Center of Cannon County shortly after 2,000, when the iconic performer also became a member of Nashville's Grand Ole Opry.

"There was not a vacant seat in our Arts Center Theatre when Dr. Stanley appeared here," confirmed long-time Arts Center employee Mary Wilson. "He was so popular, we had to turn people away."

"When Ralph Stanley performed 'O Death,' it sent chills down my spine," echoed former Rutherford County Sheriff Truman Jones, who often attends Arts Center performances.

Dr. Stanley, who had an honorary doctorate of music from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, TN., appeared on the Nashville-produced "Marty Stuart Show" on the national RFD TV Network shortly after his appearance at the Arts Center of Cannon County.

"Ralph Stanley was the consummate professional and great to work with," credited country music recording artist Stuart. "His loss to American music is immeasurable. He helped invent country music as it is known today."

In 2002, Dr. Stanley won a Grammy for best male vocal performance, beating out fellow legends Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Tim McGraw and Lyle Lovett.

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