Sign up for newsletter
 

Ralph Stanley II follows in big footsteps

By John Lupton, June 2000

Ralph Stanley II ("Two" to his family and bandmates) is far from the first young man in show business to be saddled with the expectation of following in the footsteps of a famous father - and Stanley is about as famous a bluegrass name as there is.

But he remembers that it was his mother who first suspected that he was destined to take a place alongside his legendary father after watching him sit, at the age of two, on a window ledge in the kitchen holding a broom like a guitar, strumming it and humming softly to himself.

Not long after that, he appeared on stage for the first time.

"Mom used to listen to a lot of Stanley Brothers and George Jones music and stuff like that in the car going to the grocery store, and I remember hearing that, and I fell in love with it as soon as I heard it," says Stanley.

It is a few days after this year's edition (the 30th) of the annual Stanley Festival near the family homestead in Coeburn, Va., and Ralph II is taking time to talk about a career - his own - that at the age of 21 includes five years as lead singer of his dad's Clinch Mountain Boys, appearances on the Opry stage and two solo releases on the Rebel label, which he also produced.

The first, "Listen To My Hammer Ring" (1998) gained him generally favorable reviews and a large measure of respect, but it's his new effort, "Pretty Girls, City Lights" that has caused a lot of fans and critics alike to comment on how much he's grown as an artist. It's an opinion he shares.

"I learned a lot from my mistakes...I thought the first one was a pretty good record, but I think this one blows it out of the water by far," he says.

For one thing, he says, having the first album under his belt taught him, as a producer, to relax, take his time and work the mixing board to draw out the sound he really wanted to put on the disc.

His duet with his friend Russell Moore, award-winning lead singer for IIIrd Tyme Out, on "Sea Of Regret" stands out as one of the stronger cuts.

"When John Rigsby was in the (Clinch Mountain Boys)...we sang that song a lot on stage, and a lot of people asked me if I had that recorded," Stanley says.

It was backstage at a show in Mississippi with IIIrd Tyme Out, Ralph II recalls, that he asked Russell to try a high baritone part to the song, and 3TO's banjo player Steve Dillon was so impressed that he suggested they do the song on stage that night. After an enthusiastic response from the crowd, Russell eagerly accepted Stanley's invitation to record it on the upcoming solo album.

"Pretty Girls, City Lights" features, of course, a healthy dose of the songs made famous in the bluegrass canon by his father and uncle (Carter Stanley, who died in 1966), but it also features an original by Ralph II, "I'll Remember You In My Dreams." It's a side of him that he hopes to bring more to the front as his career progresses.

"I admire somebody that writes their own material and sings them...it takes a gift, and that's why I'd like to do that," he says.

He talks about one song in particular, as yet unrecorded, that came to him in the middle of the night.

"I just started humming the melody and singing the words and thought ...'that's pretty good,' and sat down and wrote it out, and I hope to bring that out maybe in a year or two and record it."

Stanley says he's written about eight songs overall, some of which he hopes to include on his next project, a gospel album planned for release around April, 2001.

When asked about writers outside the bluegrass and country realm that he has a fondness for, he pauses a moment and says, "I really like Bob Seger...there's a song or two of his that I'd really like to work up someday."

When the conversation turns to a discussion of the legacy and history of the "Stanley Sound," he seems comfortable with the fact that he currently holds down a job in the Clinch Mountain Boys that for more than 50 years has been filled by a succession of distinguished talents.

Beginning with his Uncle Carter, the list also includes Roy Lee Centers, Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs, Larry Sparks and Charlie Sizemore.

Pretty fast company for a young singer who's barely old enough to vote, and some bluegrass fans aren't shy about reminding him about having some big shoes to fill, but he's able to keep a certain perspective and humor about it.

"I wear size 9 1/2...I got enough trouble filling my own."

Still, he agrees that there's something unique about the Stanley Sound, and that while there are certain similarities in style between his singing and that of his predecessors, each has managed to define their own approach.

In talking about Whitley, for example (whom he counts among his earliest idols and influences), he says, "You can tell he learned a lot from Carter (Stanley), but you can tell the difference...I hear resemblance (in my own singing) to both of them, but I can still pick me out."

To a certain extent, Stanley believes he might carry a special genetic propensity for his vocal style, but he also emphasizes that he's worked hard on his own to get where he is.

Nothing has been handed to him on a silver platter simply because he's Ralph Stanley's son, though the elder Ralph has been an important source of help and guidance along the way.

"Dad never did ever sit down and tell me I had to do this or do that. He's always let me develop my own way."

Part of that way was spending much of the time on the bus traveling between shows working on his singing and guitar skills, either by himself or jamming with the band members - he mentions John Rigsby and Steve Sparkman in particular.

It was also never assumed that the job of lead singer was his for the asking.

"You might be standing alongside of me, singing lead some day," he remembers his father saying, "but right now, you're not ready...you ain't quite good enough yet, but you will make it, I got faith in you."

That faith was, in the long run, well-justified. August will mark Ralph II's fifth anniversary as lead singer for the Clinch Mountain Boys.

"I'm happy where I'm at now...I'm happy singing for dad, and I couldn't be in a better place. I'm learning a lot, and he's really showed me the ropes."

It's pointed out him that, if his career lasts as long as his father's, they will together span a period of more than 100 years of traditional American music.

"As long as I'm out there performing, his name will definitely be alive...(although) by some people's standards, I never will escape his shadow."

Nevertheless, Ralph II is comfortable in the knowledge that with his solo projects and burgeoning songwriting skills, he's demonstrated that he's a distinctive artist and performer in his own right. He'd like to venture a little more into classic honky-tonk style country (the new album contains several country songs) and hopes the Stanley faithful will give him the chance to go off in a different direction from time to time.

In return, although he doesn't presume to anoint himself the sole bearer of the torch, he emphatically makes this promise: "I will keep traditional bluegrass alive."