Local bluegrass giant Ralph Lewis of 'Sons of Ralph' dies at age 89

Ralph Lewis, a popular and award-winning veteran bluegrass musician who made his home in Enka, has died. (Photo credit: Sons of Ralph)

Ralph Lewis, a popular and award-winning veteran bluegrass musician who made his home in Enka, has died.

"Although gone from our sight, Ralph is still with us and will always be part of western North Carolina. He was a giant in music and even greater as a man," said a representative of the band on Saturday.

Lewis was 89 years old.

Several of his close friends played tribute to Lewis at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville.

"He and I used to play just guitar and fiddle when we were teenagers and he was a mentor to me." said Arvil Freeman. "He helped me a bunch on my way up."

Lewis was on the schedule to perform Saturday evening, but instead friends sang, danced, and played for him.

"He's on the schedule to play tonight. It kind of gives me chills, but it makes it all the more special in some ways," said Carol Rifkin. "This is such an important event to us. This is our coming together once a year in the mountains of everyone and for Ralph to be spiritually with us on this Saturday night from here on end is kind of special."

According to his band bio, Lewis played bluegrass music since his childhood in Madison County. He grew up in a family of musicians, and went on to play with many groups including The Lewis Brothers, The Carolina Pals and The Piney Mountain Boys.

A career highlight came in the 1970s, when he was invited by "Father of Bluegrass" Bill Monroe to join the Bluegrass Boys on tour--and play the Grand Ole Opry. Monroe served as a mentor to young Lewis, and in turn, Lewis' own sons Don and Marty, bluegrass musicians themselves, also shared the stage with the Bluegrass Boys at the Opry.

In 2001 Lewis received the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Award, an honor given to people who "have made significant contributions to the folk traditions in the southern mountains."

Lewis continued to play locally with Sons of Ralph, a band which very literally included two of his sons, well past the age of retirement, and was singing and playing his mandolin into his eighty-ninth year. The Sons of Ralph regularly played Jack of the Wood, and many times won Best Band in Western NC (Old Time/Bluegrass) as voted by readers of Asheville's alternative weekly publication.

"I've been playing with him and his two sons for the last 8 years," said Korey Warren. "He took me in when I was 17, him, Marty and Don, that's his two sons and basically showed me how to be a professional musician."

The last time Korey Warren played with Ralph Lewis was just back in May. He says it likely Lewis' last performance.

"He had gone downhill just a little, but he just really wasn't in too bad shape. It was just all of a sudden top thing."

The family says arrangements are forthcoming.

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