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Ralph Stanley II carries on

By Dan Armonaitis, July 2004

Vocally, Ralph Stanley II may not sound much like his legendary father. Whereas the elder Stanley is revered for his spine-tingling lonesome bluegrass howl, Two - as he's known to his family and friends - has a plaintive husky baritone more akin to country icons such as George Jones and Merle Haggard.

Still, there's something about the younger Stanley that makes it clear that he's very much attuned to his rich family heritage.

Stanley makes specific reference to the pressure of living up to his famous name in the title track to his latest solo album, "Carrying On," which came out in late June on Rebel.

Realizing the impact of the Stanley Brothers, which consisted of his father and his uncle Carter, Stanley matter-of-factly notes, "If I live up to my name, I'll have to fill some mighty big shoes."

But Stanley then makes the "Will the Circle Be Unbroken"-worthy observation that he realizes the importance of his link to their legend in the line "when I walk out in the spotlight, we're all standing side by side."

"By being who you are, people will sometimes put you in a category, which they really shouldn't but they do," says Stanley, who in addition to his solo career is the lead singer and guitarist for his father's band, the Clinch Mountain Boys. "And I'm glad that I did write that song because I think that'll keep people from putting me in a category. I think they'll listen to that and understand how it is being me and how I feel about the music and the situation."

Although the 25-year-old Stanley wasn't born until more than a decade after Carter's death in 1966, he feels a personal kinship with his uncle.

"I never knew Carter, but I feel like I've got a lot of him in me to a certain extent," Stanley says in a telephone interview from his home in Coeburn, Va. "I've wrote songs and went to dad before and said, 'Here, listen to this.' And he tells me, 'That's exactly the way Carter used to do. The way you're doing out there reminds me a lot of him. Your actions and exactly the way you come and approach me with a new song you wrote, that's exactly the way he done.'"

Stanley's no-nonsense attitude also comes across as strikingly similar to his father, and he's often told that his level of maturity belies his age.

"A lot of people say that I act older than what I am," he says. "I've been on the road all my life, so I've seen a lot. I think that's maybe had a lot to do with it. I always was one to try to take care of business first, always do my job. Everybody likes to have a little fun, but you've got to put your work first before you do your fun because if you don't, you won't amount to nothing."

Such a solid work ethic likely has a lot to do with Two's upbringing in the mountains of southwest Virginia, where the annual Stanley Festival has been held each Memorial Day weekend since before he was even born.

As a child, Stanley was immediately enamored with music.

"When I was two years old, I was walking around the house singing along with my dad's records or George Jones records," he says. "And my mom was telling my dad about it, so he had me a little banjo made up and put 'To Ralph II...Love Daddy' on the back of it. I've still got it."

About two years later, Stanley followed Carter's path and decided to pursue guitar instead. By the time he was 16, he became the lead singer for the Clinch Mountain Boys joining an elite group who have held the post, including Roy Lee Centers, Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs, Larry Sparks and Charlie Sizemore.

Stanley still lives in Coeburn with his wife and three-year-old daughter, the latter of whom he says also shows signs of potential musical talent.

"She sings, and she kind of reminds me of myself a little bit," he says. "She'll grab a guitar and she'll say, 'I'm going to put you on a show.' I think she's got the ability in her, it just depends on whether she wants to do it."

Stanley says that leaving his family for the road is the most difficult challenge of being a professional musician. On the new album, which was produced by Ron Rigsby (brother of bluegrasser Don of the Lonesome River Band), the song "I Am the Way I Am" deals with the issue.

"When you're out on the road, your wife might think you're doing it wrong," Stanley says. "I've seen my mom think that about my dad, and my wife's thought it about me. But that's just the way it is."

But being a musician does have its rewards. And perhaps nothing better justifies his career choice than the story of his sister's boyfriend.

"He's in the Marines, and he was stationed in Iraq for six months, and then he was stationed in Afghanistan," Stanley says. "He took that CD of mine, "Pretty Girls, City Lights," with him to Iraq and all the whole base listened to was that CD. They just loved it. Well, somehow he lost that CD before he went to Afghanistan, so he got in touch with my sister and told her 'everybody's wanting that CD, and I lost it. Can you mail us another one?' He said, 'it got us through Iraq, and we want it to get us through six months here.'"

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