Ralph Stanley “carried the ancient sounds,” in the words of his protege Ricky Skaggs.
Skaggs and others noted an uncanny quality in the style of the bluegrass patriarch — an ability to summon the mysterious. Stanley, who died Thursday at 89, was mesmerizing new fans with it to his last days.
The icon of Appalachian music had learned the banjo at his mother’s knee in east Virginia. With his father’s mountain songs and the hymns of his Primitive Baptist church, it seemed to be all the teaching he needed. “I never wanted to branch out,” he once said.
His death at home in Sandy Ridge, Va., from complications of skin cancer ended...