More than 100 songs and instrumentals, some co-written with Ralph Stanley and others in the name of his half-sister, Ruby Rakes

“I’ll Take the Blame” (Billboard peak at #86, 1980 for Ricky Skaggs)
“Could You Love Me One More Time”
“The Fields Have Turned Brown”
“Going To the Races”
“Harbor of Love”
“I’ll Just Go Away”
“Lonesome Night”
“The Lonesome River”
“Nobody’s Love Like Mine”
“Think Of What You’ve Done”
“The White Dove”

“[M]ost songs I have written at night… I remember very well when I wrote “The White Dove.” We was coming home from Asheville, North Carolina, to Bristol, Tennessee, and I had the light on because I wanted to write it down and Ralph was fussing at me for having the light on. He was driving and he said the light bothered him, but he hasn’t fussed anymore about that.”
-Interview with Mike Seeger in March of 1966, quoted by Gary Reid in liner notes to The Early Starday/King Years, 1958-1961, Starday/King Records, 2003.

Early influences

Carter Family
Grayson & Whitter
J.E. and Wade Mainer
Monroe Brothers
Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys

“Dad… couldn’t play a thing as far as an instrument but his voice was just the same as ours. He sang ‘Pretty Polly’ and ‘A Man of Constant Sorrow,’ ‘Little Bessie,’ I believe. I guess that’s where we got what little singing we know.”
-Interview with Mike Seeger in March of 1966, quoted by Gary Reid in liner notes to The Early Starday/King Years, 1958-1961, Starday/King Records, 2003.

Came to fame with

The Stanley Brothers, 1946-1966

“The Stanley Brothers had a song called ‘Little Glass of Wine’ and they impressed me with the fact that they actually got a big U.S. Mail sack of letters every day requesting them to sing it, and so naturally we hopped into a session on that.”
-Rich-R-Tone Records owner James Stanton, quoted in Rounder Collective, brochure notes to The Rich-R-Tone Story, 1974.

Performed with

Roy Sykes and the Blue Ridge Mountain Boys, Norton, VA, 1946
The Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, 1946-1951
Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, 1951
The Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, 1951-1966

Led the way

Co-led the second band to achieve commercial success playing the new (and as yet unnamed) style of bluegrass
A major contributor to the “mountain” and “lonesome” sounds of bluegrass
Writer of much of the core song repertoire and some of the most affecting lyrics in bluegrass history
Instrumental Group of the Year, Nashville Disc Jockey’s Convention, 1955
First bluegrass band to play the prestigious Newport Folk Festival, in 1959
Bluegrass Hall of Fame, 1992



Born: August 27, 1925, Big Spraddle Creek, Dickenson County, VA
Died: December 1, 1966, Bristol, TN
Instrument: Guitar

“Pee Wee [Lambert] played the mandolin and Ralph he played the banjo, just forefinger and thumb, and Carter he was learning Lester Flatt strokes. They was getting pretty good at it ‘cause they practiced; they didn’t fool around.”
-Fiddler Leslie Keith, describing the Stanley Brothers’ band as he joined it in 1947, in Sayers, Bob, “Leslie Keith: Black Mountain Odyssey,” Bluegrass Unlimited, December, 1976.


By the Way

  • Carter Stanley was an informed student of early country music, and imparted that knowledge to new audiences at his concerts during the 1960s folk music era.
  • Reportedly turned down Bill Monroe’s 1951 offer to retitle his act “Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers.”
  • In his early twenties on a radio broadcast, unthinkingly dedicated the song “Lonely Tombs” to “all you folks that’s not feeling well.”
  • An effective pitchman for Jim Walter Homes Corporation on radio and television performances from Live Oak, Florida, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.


From the Archives:  Ralph and Carter Stanley (John Palmer on bass) at the Roanoke Blue Grass Festival in Fincastle, Virginia 1965.  Photo by Ron Petronko.

    From the Archives:  George Shuffler, Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley and Ralph Stanley at Fincastle Virginia, 1965.   Photo by Ron Petronko.  


From the Archives:  George Shuffler, Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley and Ralph Stanley at Fincastle Virginia, 1965.  Photo by Ron Petronko. 


Carter Stanley and his younger brother Ralph grew up in the remote coal and timber fields of southwestern Virginia where they spent most of their lives. Father Lee Stanley was a powerful singer in the Appalachian tradition, which his boys also experienced at the McClure Primitive Baptist Church. Mother Lucy Smith Stanley was accomplished at the clawhammer-style banjo. Both widowed in previous marriages, Lee and Lucy separated when Carter was 16 and Ralph was 14. The boys were close companions and shared a strong interest in the mountain music that surrounded them. They played widely at family and community gatherings, graduating from imagined instruments of kindling wood to the guitar (Carter) and banjo (Ralph) as young teenagers.

After graduating in 1943 from Irvington High School in Nora, Virginia, where he was class president, Carter served two years in the Army Air Corps. Committed to a professional music career, Carter joined Roy Sykes and the Blue Ridge Mountain Boys in 1946, playing daily on WNVA in nearby Norton, Virginia. When Ralph was discharged later that year, Carter and bandmate Pee Wee Lambert left their group to form the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Winning an audition on Bristol’s brand-new 50,000-watt station, WCYB, the group performed daily on the noontime “Farm and Fun Time” for most of the next 12 years. Recordings with Johnson City, Tennessee’s Rich-R-Tone label began in 1947.

The Clinch Mountain Boys at first played in an old-time style reminiscent of Mainer’s Mountaineers. Carter’s songwriting was a distinctive feature of the band’s appeal. “Mother No Longer Awaits Me at Home” and “The Girl Behind the Bar” were followed by “Little Glass of Wine,” which became a regional hit. The influence of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys and Bill’s alumni Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs soon had the Clinch Mountain Boys playing a unique fusion of mountain music and the emerging bluegrass style.

In 1949, the popular act’s signing to Columbia prompted Bill Monroe to leave that label. During the next several years, the Stanley Brothers developed an innovative style of trio singing. Carter sang the verses solo; on choruses Ralph harmonized on a higher tenor line while Pee Wee Lambert sang an even higher baritone part on songs like “The Angels Are Singing,” “The Lonesome River,” and “The White Dove.”

A slow period in the winter of 1950-1951 led to a brief hiatus in the Stanley Brothers performances and Columbia recordings. Bill Monroe called upon Carter as a replacement for Jimmy Martin as lead singer with the Blue Grass Boys. The anger Bill had felt toward the Stanleys, whom he felt were copying his music, soon dissipated and the three remained friends for the rest of their lives. In July of 1951, Carter recorded six numbers with Bill, including the notable duet “Sugar Coated Love” and quartets “You’re Drifting Away” and “Get Down on Your Knees and Pray.” By October, the Clinch Mountain Boys were back together and hotter than ever.

In 1953, the band switched labels with Flatt and Scruggs, joining Mercury. This proved a lucky move, as Mercury producer Dee Kilpatrick loved the hard-edge Appalachian sound and stuck with the Stanley Brothers as emergence of rock ‘n roll altered or destroyed the careers of many of their peers. Carter felt the Mercury recordings of the next five years were the brothers’ best. In 1958, the band relocated to Live Oak, Florida, to found the Suwanee River Jamboree on WNER. That year, they joined King Records of Cincinnati, where they remained until Carter’s death.

King’s Syd Nathan encouraged the band to de-emphasize the fiddle, banjo, and mandolin in favor of a two-guitar sound. Nathan also pitched honky-tonk flavored material he felt would more likely appeal to a country music audience. The Stanley Brothers’ only charting single, “How Far To Little Rock,” peaked at number 17 in Billboard in 1960. Ironically, it was the folk music audience that carried the Stanley Brothers to global prominence and appearances in the 1960s.

A brooding personality, a decade of road travel away from home and the mountains he loved, and meager financial rewards for his strenuous musical labors perhaps contributed to Carter’s deepening alcoholism. His health suffered, and bandmates Ralph Stanley and George Shuffler were increasingly required to fill Carter’s roles as emcee and lead singer. Carter appeared at the first multi-day bluegrass festival in Fincastle, Virginia, Labor Day Weekend of 1965, where he triumphantly reprised his recordings with Bill Monroe in the Sunday afternoon “Bluegrass Story.” December 1, 1966, two months after his last concert at Monroe’s Brown County Jamboree in Bean Blossom, Indiana, Carter Stanley died of liver failure. He was 41.

“Music was his first love – his life – and he gave it the best he had to give at all times. Sick or well, sad or happy, for Carter Stanley the show went on… [H]is music, his dreams, the things he stood for, live on.”
Daughter Doris Stanley Avery, letter to the editor, Bluegrass Unlimited, July, 1976.

“Carter Stanley had an unusual voice, a rare, rich, mellow and pure sound that seemed to flow effortlessly from him. His voice could be so tender at times yet so powerful as well. His voice seemed to pull on emotions he held deep inside. He had the unique ability to paint a picture with words when he sang.”
Daughter Jeanie Stanley in liner note to Baby Girl: A Tribute To My Father Carter Stanley, CMH Records, 2005.

“Once I saw the Stanleys fill an auditorium that would seat 450 people to capacity twice on a single Saturday night… in a town of 1,200 and a county of 10,000. Forced to leave after the first show so that people outside could get in for the second show, I examined the shiny new Cadillac they had parked near a rear door. Then I joined others who had gathered at the open windows to hear more good bluegrass until the second show ended; they emerged, still dripping sweat, and signing the song and picture books they sold. From the beginning they combined the graceful vocal harmonies of a ‘brother’ act with hard-driving instrumentation to produce a music with power and depth. I thought then that it was the best music I’d heard, and time has had very little effect on that opinion.”
Wilson, Joe, “Bristol’s WCYB: Early Bluegrass Turf” in Muleskinner News, October, 1972.