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Nathan Stanley carries on family tradition

By Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., March 2015

Young bluegrass artist Nathan Stanley doesn't fall far from the branches of the family tree; he honors the legacy of his grandfather, Dr. Ralph Stanley, by delivering straight ahead traditional bluegrass music, interpreting old classics that have shaped him and his music. At the same time, young Stanley is an original, refusing to sing the old songs in the ways they've been performed before. "If it's been done," he says, "I don't think I'll do it that way."

Stanley has already released 8 solo albums. Earlier this year, he joined his papaw for two songs - "Rank Stranger" and "Hills of Home" - on the album, "Ralph Stanley and Friends: Man of Constant Sorrow."

Stanley's latest album, released earlier this month, lives up to its title and honors the music that is so deeply embedded in his heart and soul. "The Legacy Continues" features Ralph Stanley on two songs "Rank Stranger" and the gospel chestnut, "Where Could I Go But to the Lord" - and ranges over songs that take up traditional bluegrass themes of love and loss ("Are You Missing Me?"), loneliness ("Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?"), dependence on faith in God ("Calling My Children Home") and love of the home place ("Love of the Mountains"). Stanley includes a song he wrote especially to honor his deep love and gratitude for his grandfather ("Papaw I Love You").

Stanley chatted from his home in Virginia about his new album and life in music.

Nathan Stanley sings

CST: What's the story behind this album? Why did you decide to put it out now?
Stanley
: Well, I'd been thinking about a new bluegrass album for a couple of years and this title just popped into my head. I wanted to record several of my favorite bluegrass songs as well as some new ones. With this record, I wanted to tell the music industry how much I loved my papaw, Dr. Ralph Stanley, who raised me from a pup. By the time we got all the songs together and got everything completed, the record took about three months to record.

CST: How did you select the songs?
Stanley
: I went back and looked through the catalogs of some of my favorites like Jim and Jesse, Bill Monroe, and, of course, my papaw, who sang with me on a couple of these songs; he joins me on his own "Rank Stranger" (and I sing that one with him on his new album, "Ralph Stanley & Friends: Man of Constant Sorrow") as well as "Where Could I Go But to the Lord."

CST: What are your grandfather's three most memorable traits?
Stanley
: His voice: it's unique, and you can't mistake it for any other. Today when you hear the radio, you can't hear anything like his voice; his voice stands out. Another thing, he's always stuck with what he believes in, and he's never veered from it. He stayed true to his roots even when bluegrass music changed in the 60s and 70s; he stated true to mountain music. He's also a man of great faith; he's always included gospel music in his shows and recorded albums.

CST: Speaking of gospel, what's the role of gospel music in your own music?
Stanley
: I hold strong to my beliefs and speak about my faith at all my shows and on my records. I have my own ministry and host a weekly TV program on the Living Faith Network. At every one of our shows, I give out copies of the King James Version of the Bible and DVDs of "The Life of Jesus" and sing gospel songs. In 2014, my album, "Every Mile," won the Bluegrass Album of the Year at the Dove Awards. Bluegrass and gospel music are like brothers and sisters; gospel and bluegrass go hand in hand. Most of the time, you can do more for somebody in the message of a three-minute song than two hours of preaching can do for them.

CST: Besides your grandfather, who are your three greatest musical influences?
Stanley
: George Jones: he had a voice like no other; he was a great stylist, and I love and learn from his vocal phrasing. Elvis: he was such a great entertainer, and he knew exactly what it took to entertain a crowd. Dolly Parton: she has such an angelic voice, and she's like Elvis because she's such a great entertainer. It's my dream one day to record with her.

CST: What's your approach to songwriting?
Stanley
: I don't really consider myself a songwriter. The ones I've written over the years have been gospel songs, and I give credit to the Lord for those. The lyrics and the music of the one I wrote for this album, "Papaw I Love You," just came to me after a show in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

CST: What are the elements of a great song?
Stanley
: I like a good story and a good melody, but a good melody is not enough; a really pretty melody has to have a good story behind it.

CST: How did you get Brad Paisley to join you for a duet on "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone"?
Stanley
: I've known Brad for a while. I met him when I was six or seven, backstage at the Opry. What I remember about that night is that I sat on his lap, and we talked about fishing. I really liked that about him; he was so down-to-earth. I had already picked out this song when I approached him, and when I contacted him, he agreed to do it.

CST: Your favorite mistake?
Stanley
: Well, I don't think of this as a mistake, but my life would have been different if I had done something else. I can remember my mama leaving me behind with my papaw; I cried and cried, because I don't think I understood what was happening. I knew I had to stay with him, and if I hadn't been with him all my life, I don't think I would be where I am today.

CST: When did you start singing and playing?
Stanley
: I shared the stage with my grandfather when I was two years old. The first stage I ever went on was the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. When I was 11, I started to play mandolin in The Clinch Mountain Boys, and at 15, I started playing rhythm guitar with them.

CST: How do you think you've grown as an artist?
Stanley
: I always try to be myself and don't try to copy anybody. Each person has his own gifts, and I've learned to sing it the way I feel it, to let it come naturally and to flow naturally. I hope I can make my mark on the music industry as a stylist.

CST: What's next for you?
Stanley
: Well, I'm going back into the studio and record another album for Willow Creek Records, mainly new songs, but a mix of bluegrass and gospel. I'll be doing several shows this year with T. Graham Brown. And, I hope one day to record an album with Dolly Parton.