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Ralph Stanley clinches his country roots

By Stephen L. Betts, June 1998

Dr. Ralph Stanley is certainly a legendary singer, songwriter and bluegrass musician. At 71, he is one of the genre's most enduring figures. A true American icon, if ever there was one, the influence he has had in over half a century of making music is without question.

And now, that influence is well-documented, in a double-CD set "Clinch Mountain Country," just out from Virginia-based Rebel Records.

It's Stanley's 30th project for the venerable label. What distinguishes this project, however, is the esteemed assemblage of guest musicians whose respect and love for "the Stanley tradition" drew them instantly to the studio to work alongside the man whose voice and heart are so deeply imbued with the rich heritage of the Appalachian mountains.

Along with the obviously high profile (not to mention high "cool" factor) appearance of Bob Dylan, a host of other country, bluegrass and gospel acts join in on nearly 30 songs from the Stanley repertoire. Porter Wagoner, Dwight Yoakam, Hal Ketchum, Patty Loveless and Vince Gill, George Jones, Vern Gosdin, Jim Lauderdale, Joe Diffie, Marty Stuart...you get the picture.

The one thing each artist seemed to leave the sessions with was a basically similar impression of Stanley's style.

In compiling the tracks for the album, Stanley let many of the guest artists choose the songs they wanted to perform. The joy of revisiting the old songs was another bonus for him. "I enjoyed singing all of the old songs because it was with a different voice, a different person. It was a good experience for me. It made me feel good to get some of the old songs and bring them out again."

Born in 1927, Ralph Stanley, along with brother Carter, formed one of country music's most revered duos in the late Forties. Their sound, although in some ways patterned after Bill Monroe's developing "bluegrass" sound, maintained the plaintive mountain strains of their Appalachian youth, and proved an interesting contrast to the more robust, and often more commercial sound of Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs.

The duet came to an untimely end with Carter's death in 1966. Ralph went on to form the Clinch Mountain Boys, which at times had included both Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs, and became one of the most highly respected musical units working the road.

The road has never stopped, and has barely slowed down, for Stanley. On his continuing journey he has amassed more fans, some impressive honors, and a surfeit of fellow musicians anxious to collaborate with him.

For many of the artists found on "Clinch Mountain Country," their involvement was simply a way of saying "thank you." For one particular artist it was "...the highlight of my career."

That's how 60's folk-rock icon Dylan assessed his time in the studio with Stanley. The pair duet on "The Lonesome River," a tune Ralph wrote with brother Carter. Traditionally a number for a trio, this version marks the first time since it's initial recording in 1950 it has been fashioned as a duet.

Dylan had previously recorded "Rank Stranger," another Stanley standard on his 1988 album "Down In The Groove," and often mentions in interviews the sizable role the Stanley Brothers played in his musical education.

Another artist who absorbed a great deal of the Stanley sound is Kentucky native Yoakam, who, having worked with Stanley a number of times already, was obviously comfortable standing alongside the legendary elder statesman of American music.

Of their time in the studio, Stanley recalls, "We're both at home. We don't have any trouble of phrasing with each other, it's just like home folks. Dwight recorded with me on a another project of mine five or six years ago ("Saturday Night, Sunday Morning," another Stanley duets effort) and on two or three of his latest CDs I recorded with him. I consider Dwight Yoakam my best friend. I've never met a nicer young man in my life."

Gillian Welch, who recorded "Gold Watch and Chain" with Stanley and was at his Nashville record release party, says it's futile to keep up with Stanley in the studio because "he kicks your butt!"

While countless artists obviously acknowledge Stanley's broad influence, it's refreshing to learn that the general public has made him as aware of his role in their lives as well.

"I have had a father or mother with maybe a three-month-old baby come up to me." Stanley says. "And they would say 'this little girl...' or 'this little boy... won't go to sleep at night until I play them one of your tapes.' So, you know that makes me feel good. But, people of all ages tell me things like that all the time, and I never get tired of it."

In bluegrass, gospel, and country music familial bonds are plentiful. No other style of singing can compare to the harmonizing of family members. Ralph and Carter Stanley, the Monroe Brothers and the Delmores were the genesis of a style that to this day is unparalleled.

The addition of his own son, Ralph Stanley II (or "Two" as he is often called) as guitarist, spokesman for his father on stage, and most importantly as a lead vocalist, obviously means a great deal to the elder Stanley.

"I think the Lord sent that young man to me," Stanley says. "He knew that I needed somebody like that. He has put new life in me, and I am SO proud of him."

The elder Stanley says that even with the number of singers he has had in his group since Carter's death, the addition of 19 year-old Ralph II is as close as he can get to recapturing the sound he had with brother Carter.

Of previous lead singers he's featured in the Clinch Mountain Boys, such as Keith Whitley and Charlie Sizemore, Stanley says, "Good lead singers started coming to me. And they had the sound. They heard it all their lives. Most of them were young, but they had the sound, and some of them actually knew the more of the songs than I did. And I have been lucky that way all through the years. If one man left, maybe 8 or 10 would call me. And I've always been fortunate enough to find a good man to replace anyone that left."

Appraising his longevity as a performer - he's been entertaining audiences now for over half a century - Stanley says with trademark modesty, "I have always respected the music. Everything that I've got, or anything that I own, I've made playing this music."