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Volume 24, Number 9 — September 2017

Ralph Stanley Receives National Medal of Art

November 16, 2006

Washington, D.C. — Legendary bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley from Coeburn, Va. recently received the 2006 National Medal of Art, the nation's highest honor for artistic excellence.

The National Medal of Arts, established by Congress in 1984, is awarded by the President to those who have made extraordinary contributions to the creation, growth, and support of the arts in the United States. Each year, the Arts Endowment seeks nominations from individuals and organizations across the country. The National Council on the Arts, the Arts Endowment's Presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed advisory body, reviews the nominations and provides recommendations to the President, who selects the recipients.

Stanley was born in 1927 in the Clinch Mountains of Virginia, which inspired much of his music. He and his brother Carter learned ballad singing and claw hammer-style banjo playing from their mother, whose repertoire ranged from traditional narrative songs to 19th-century hymns. After the brothers were discharged from the Army — both in 1946 — they formed their own band, the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys. They quickly gained a following due to their broadcasts on WCYB in Bristol, Virginia, which reached a five-state area: Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

From 1947 to 1958, the Stanley Brothers recorded with Rich-R-Tone, Columbia, and Mercury record labels, where they defined their signature sound, which revolved around Ralph's mournful vocals and three-finger banjo playing and Carter's masterful lead singing. In 1966, Carter died, and after much consideration, Ralph continued his musical career and formed a new band.

Although Stanley has played primarily a traditional repertoire, he has also written his own songs. "It just hits you, comes on your mind," he said. "I've got up at three or four o'clock in the morning, wrote a song or two, maybe wrote three before I went back to bed. If I didn't get up and write them down, I wouldn't have remembered them the next day." Stanley was also responsible for the revival of a cappella singing in contemporary bluegrass music, continuing the tradition he had learned from his mother.

Many contemporary bluegrass artists have come up through the Clinch Mountain Boys band, including Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Larry Sparks and Charlie Sizemore. Stanley has seen a resurgent interest in his music after he performed on the multi-platinum soundtrack for the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? released in 2000.

Ten medals were presented on November 9 by President George W. Bush and Mrs. Laura Bush in an Oval Office ceremony at the White House. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) manages the National Medal of Arts nomination process. "These individuals and organizations have all made enduring contributions to the artistic life of our nation," said NEA Chairman Dana Gioia. "Whether by translating the masterpieces of Latin American literature or bringing genius to the design of everyday objects or simply preserving the great musical heritage of New Orleans, their work has enriched our national culture."

For information about all the 2006 National Medal of Arts Recipients, click here.

A! ExtraTopics: Music