Stanley Brothers got their start 75 years ago this month
The Stanley Brothers, from Dickenson County, Virginia, formed their band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, in the month of November 1946. Carter played guitar and sang lead, while Ralph played banjo and sang with what was then a timorous high tenor voice.
Additional members of this early band were Darrell “Pee Wee” Lambert on mandolin and Bobby Sumner (fiddle). Sumner was soon to be replaced by Leslie Keith.
Initially Carter and Ralph played together as youngsters, but deployment in World War II stalled their development. While Carter was discharged in February 1946 Ralph remained in service until the middle of October. In the meantime, Carter worked for Roy Sykes, the leader of the Blue Ridge Mountain Boys, and very briefly Ralph joined them before dissatisfaction set in and he even considered a career as a veterinary doctor.
Ultimately, they decided that they would put together their own group.
Gary B Reid, author of The Music of the Stanley Brothers (University of Illinois Press) provides this summary of those early months ….
The Stanley Brothers got their start as a band around November 1, 1946. Their initial group consisted of Carter and Ralph Stanley, a West Virginia mandolin player named Darrell “Pee Wee” Lambert, and a Kentucky fiddler named Bobby Sumner. They secured a spot on WNVA, a 250-watt station in Norton. Their daily slot was at 9:30 a.m. on a program called Mid-Morning Musicale. Only a handful of personal appearances were realized at this time, the first of which netted each player a whopping $2.48.
Wanting a bigger audience for their music, the Stanleys moved to WCYB radio in Bristol, Virginia, a new 1,000-watt station. Their Farm & Fun Time show aired for the first time on December 26, 1946; Ralph Stanley sang a Hank Williams song, Six More Miles. Subsequent programs aired every afternoon, from 12:30 to 1:30, Monday through Saturday.
The move to Bristol paid off handsomely for the band. Carter Stanley once told that a stretch of work kept them busy for 90 straight days. He said, ‘I didn’t realize that we had worked straight that long but our dad kept a record of it. We was really wanting a day off, just one day off would have been fine. We finally took it.”
The Stanley Brothers radio and performance popularity attracted the attention of Rich-R-Tone Records in nearby Johnson City, Tennessee. Soon, the group added Recording Artists to its resume. In the middle of 1947, the group held its first recording session. Four songs were recorded: The Girl Behind the Bar, Mother No Longer Awaits Me at Home, I Can Tell You the Time, and Death is Only a Dream.
According to Ralph Stanley, James Hobart “Hobe” Stanton contacted the brothers about recording for him. The founder of the Rich-R-Tone record company, based in Johnson City, Tennessee, was impressed with the considerable amount of fan mail that they were receiving on the back of their rendition of songs like the old English ballad The Little Glass of Wine.
The early sessions took place at the WOPI Radio Station studio, Bristol, Virginia, and featured Carter Stanley (lead vocals, guitar); Ralph Stanley (tenor vocals, banjo); Leslie Keith (fiddle); Pee Wee Lambert (vocals, mandolin); and Ray Lambert (bass vocals, bass).
As Reid has indicated, they recorded four songs during their first visit to the studio, two Gospel quartets. apparently found in old songbooks, and two original compositions.
The quartets feature Carter Stanley singing lead, Ralph Stanley, who usually sang tenor, switched to the baritone part allowing the Bill Monroe-influenced Pee Wee Lambert to take the tenor role. Ray Lambert covered the bass vocals. They were well-rehearsed, establishing a good blend of voices with a natural youthful exuberance.
Of the original material Mother No Longer Awaits Me At Home borrows a lot from the Monroe recording Mother’s Only Sleeping, even to the point of having some identical lyrics. All of this met much disapproval from Monroe.
The first single, Mother No Longer Awaits Me At Home / The Girl Behind The Bar (Rich-R-Tone 420), was released late in September 1947. Both songs were written by Carter Stanley. Ralph recalled,
“We did our first recording session for Rich-R-Tone in spring of 1947. It was only a few months after we’d become a working band, but we were ready because we played music just about every waking hour. It was at the studio of WOPI, the rival station of WCYB, right down the street but on the Tennessee side of town. Hobe used WOPI as his home base in Bristol. He had made buddies with the engineer there and the studio had nice acoustics and a disc cutter as good as any you could find.“
[from Ralph Stanley and Eddie Dean’s book Man Of Constant Sorrow]
He went on to say ….
“Carter had something he’d just wrote. As far as I know, it was his first original song, the first one he done from scratch. It was called Mother No Longer Awaits Me At Home. Now, some songwriters get their ideas from life and things that happen to them, and they put those experiences in their songs. Hank Williams was the best at that, and his songs were all about the troubles in his life and you could hear it in his singing.”
The Stanley Brothers Mother No Longer Awaits Me At Home
The flipside, The Girl Behind The Bar, was more original although it used the same melody as Little Glass Of Wine. According to Ralph, Carter “took the story from an old ballad tradition, but he cut to the chase. The singer meets a girl at a roadside tavern, and they get together for a date outside, where her boyfriend’s waiting on ’em and stabs her in the back; he escapes into the night, leaving the singer to take the rap.”
The Girl Behind The Bar
At this stage Ralph Stanley was still playing banjo in the two-finger style. The brothers didn’t make the transition from old-time to bluegrass until the spring and summer of 1948.
Knowledgeable British Stanley Brothers’ enthusiast Chris Wing recalls how he became aware of their music as it was 75 years ago ….
“Bluegrass without the Stanley’s…hard to imagine. I first heard them in late 1959; it was a Starday compilation issued on the well-known UK independent label Melodisc; Banjo in The Hills (MLP-12-115). As you know they went on to release several more Starday recordings. The first recording was Gonna Paint this Town; by then of course The Stanley sound had evolved and developed. I didn’t hear their Rich R Tone recordings until 1966, but in between time I had been able to purchase some Mercury, Columbia, Starday, and King recordings. As you can imagine when I heard their 1947 and first recordings, I didn’t recognize them!! Their style was Old Timey more like Wade Mainer etc., but now all these years later when all their recordings are now available and all the history behind them which we didn’t have at the time. I still enjoy listening to their earlier records (Rich R Tone and Columbia) with more of an understanding to what was evolving in their bluegrass history…Ralph’s two-finger style to three, Carter’s guitar playing and singing. Yes, they copied Bill Monroe for sure, but that is all they had at the time…
On a personal note, I think they are more important in the development of bluegrass than Flatt and Scruggs??!!! and of course there is Carter’s song writing and all those classics.
So, the history of bluegrass would not be the same without The Stanley Brothers.”
Eventually, the Stanley Brothers had seven Rich-R-Tone 78s released and went on to do studio recordings for Columbia, Mercury, Starday, King, and Wango in a career that spanned 20 years.
One their lasting great legacies was the innovative new trio arrangement with a regular lead and a tenor harmony above it to which was added an even higher ‘high baritone’ part.
This trademark high harmony sound created an emotional, keening effect well-suited to songs such as The Fields Have Turned Brown, The White Dove, and The Lonesome River. The recording of these songs didn’t take place until 1949 and 1950 while they were with Columbia Records. Perhaps this is to what Chris Wing is alluding in citing the brothers as a greater influence than Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
Carter Glen Stanley, (August 27, 1925 – December 1, 1966) and Ralph Edmond Stanley (February 25, 1927 – June 23, 2016) were both born near the small community of Big Spraddle Creek, just south of McClure in Dickenson County, Virginia.
They were inducted into the IBMA’s Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor (as it was then) in 1992.
These recordings can be heard on the following albums …
- The Stanley Brothers – Their Original Recordings (Melodeon MLP-7322, released in February 1966)
- Earliest Recordings – The Complete Rich-R-Tone 78s (1947-1952) (Revenant R-203, July 1997)
- Too Late To Cry (Catfish KATCD 206 (UK), September 25, 2001)
- Earliest Recordings: The Complete Rich-R-Tone 78s, 1947-1952 (Rounder 11661-1110-2, April 12, 2005)