From Blue Grass to Bluegrass: Week 8

The Stanley Brothers And The Beginnings of a Genre

The mid-1940s edition of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, featuring banjoist Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt, is generally thought of as the “original” bluegrass band. It was “original” in a very significant way– this version of the band was the first Monroe band to be consciously and closely imitated by other southern stringband musicians. One of the first of the bands to follow in the footsteps of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys was the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys.

The Stanley Brothers grew up on a mountain farm in southwestern Virginia. The brothers were guitarist and lead singer Carter Stanley and his younger brother, banjoist Ralph. In the years following the Second World War, the Stanleys, joined by mandolinist and singer Darrell “Pee Wee” Lambert, put together the first version of the Clinch Mountain Boys. Lambert, an early Monroe disciple, played and sang in a style very similar to that of his idol.

In their earliest recordings, made for the regional Rich-R-Tone label starting in 1947, the Stanleys had more of an old time sound. Ralph played the banjo in a two finger style and had not yet adopted the three finger style being popularized by Scruggs. At this time, the Stanleys had a radio show in Bristol, on the Virginia/Tenessee border, at radio station WCYB’s Farm and Fun Time program. (Flatt & Scruggs would later host this program.) The Stanleys were very popular in the Bristol area. One of their Rich-R-Tone recordings was the traditional tune “Little Maggie,” a vocal solo by Ralph featuring his two finger style banjo playing. That haunting modal recording became closely identified with Ralph Stanley and represents an early example of the brothers’ “mountain soul.”

Through this period, the Stanleys were listening closely to Monroe’s Opry broadcasts and live shows. The extent of their devotion to Monroe’s music can be seen in their Rich-R-Tone recording of the song “Molly and Tenbrook.” That song was being featured by Monroe onstage and on his Opry broadcasts; he had recorded it a year before the Stanleys but Monroe’s version was unreleased at the time the Stanley recording came out. Pee Wee Lambert sang the song solo, and as on Monroe’s record, the banjo and the fiddle traded instrumental choruses. This was the first Stanley Brothers recording to feature Ralph’s playing banjo in the three finger style, like Scruggs. This record also marked the first time that any other band had recorded in the style of Bill Monroe.

To say that Monroe was not happy with the Stanley Brothers’ “homage” to his song would be an understatement. At that time, Monroe was not known as the “Father of Bluegrass”; that and similar accolades had to wait until the 1960s, when Monroe’s pivotal role in the music was widely recognized. What Bill saw were competitors, aping his music. To make matters worse, from Bill’s viewpoint, the recording featured fiddler Art Wooten, a former Blue Grass Boy. Later Bill patched up his differences with Carter and Ralph, and Carter himself was briefly a Blue Grass Boy. But in the late 1940s, Bill jealously guarded his style of music and didn’t appreciate other bands performing in his style.

Even then, however, Carter Stanley was writing original songs for the Stanleys to sing, and he quickly developed into one of the best bluegrass songwriters. In 1949, the Stanleys began recording for Columbia, and nearly all their songs were Carter Stanley originals, including some of the most iconic – “Vision of Mother,” “White Dove,” “Little Glass of Wine,” “The Old Home,” “The Fields Have Turned Brown,” and “Lonesome River.” Some of these songs featured a distinctive Stanley innovation, the high baritone vocal trio, with two harmony parts above the melody. The brothers voices were completely their own but each was distinctive-Carter had a smooth relaxed delivery, perhaps more of a commercial country singer voice, while Ralph’s voice was defiantly high and lonesome. Nobody would call him a pop smoothie.

Their different voices blended well. The combination of their fresh and exciting material and the haunting high baritone trio gave the Stanley Brothers their own distinctive sound, and soon others were imitating them. By the 1950s, they reached a peak with their recordings for Mercury, including “(Say) Won’t You Be Mine,” “This Weary Heart You Stole Away,” “Lonesome Without You,” “I Just Got Wise,” “Lonesome Night,” “Lost and I’ll Never Find the Way,” and “If That’s The Way You Feel,” all Stanley originals. The high baritone trio on Lonesome Night is especially spooky—that’s how it’s done, folks! The Stanley Brothers had further musical innovations in their future, perhaps the subject of a future blog post.

Andy Bing

Andy Bing has been playing bluegrass music for 40 years in the Hudson Valley region of New York. He plays mostly mandolin and dobro, as well as some banjo and guitar. He studied dobro in the Washington DC area with Seldom Scene dobro innovator Mike Auldridge, who remains his main inspiration on that instrument. On the mandolin Andy is a huge fan of Bill Monroe. In his other life Andy is a retired lawyer who worked in Albany for over 30 years.

4 Responses

  • Very nice article Andy! I honestly believe it was Pee Wee Lambert who was responsible for “stealing” songs from Monroe’s repertoire. I give him the credit of influencing the Stanleys to copy Monroe and start a genre of music that became known as bluegrass at a later year. As soon as Earl Scruggs quit Bill Monroe, he was invited to play a show with the Stanley Brothers. He and Ralph played their banjos in the back seat of Dad Stanley’s car long enough for Ralph to learn how to do the 3 finger style — he never played 2 finger again!

  • Thanks Dick! I did not know about the Earl and Ralph meeting that provided the tutorial that Ralph needed to switch over to three finger picking. I had read that Ralph claimed to have been inspired by Snuffy Jenkins, but I guess I found that version of events not to be completely convincing. But however Ralph came to it, nobody can deny he put his own distinctive stamp on the three finger style!

  • I never heard of Ralph Stanley playing a two finger style banjo I’ve heard him playing the old time claw hammer or frailing banjo which he still featured in is shows up until he he stopped playing. He even talked about learning the Scruggs style instead of claw hammer in his book man of constant sorrow. He never once mentioned the two finger style. I heard Lester Flatt say he could play the two finger style that he learned at a young age but never Ralph Stanley. If I’m wrong please accept my sincere apology.

  • Thank you for posting a comment, Edmond. Gary B. Reid’s liner notes to the CD reissue of the Stanley Brothers’ Rich-R-Tone recordings contain a quote from Ralph discussing his use of the two-finger (thumb and one finger) style as well as the clawhammer style of banjo playing when the Stanleys began their career. Also, in his book “Bluegrass-A History,” Neil Rosenberg quotes fiddler Leslie Keith, who performed with the Stanleys on the Rich-R-Tone recordings, to the effect that “Ralph he played the banjo, just forefinger and thumb” at that time. Rosenberg notes in his book that it is widely believed that Ralph adopted the three-finger style after hearing Earl Scruggs, but that Ralph claimed to have been inspired to play in that style by banjo picker Snuffy Jenkins.

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