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Ralph Stanley roams on

By Jeffrey B. Remz, July 2006

The decision by Ralph Stanley to record an album paying tribute to first family of country music, the Carter Family, should come as no surprise.

For starters, Stanley lives in Coeburn, Va., a stones-throw away from Bristol, Va., where the Carters lived and made their Big Bang mark in music in 1927 with the famous Ralph Peer-recorded sessions, which helped make country music commercially viable. And then when Stanley was getting started in music, he opened a show for the Carter Family with brother Carter. The Stanleys later played and recorded Carter Family songs during their career together.

Fast forward many decades later. The result is "A Distant Land to Roam: Songs of the Carter Family" with Dr. Ralph and his backing Clinch Mountain Boys. The disc, out on musician/producer T Bone Burnett's DMZ label, contains 13 songs once upon a time cut by A.P. Carter with his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle. The songs continue Stanley's bent of recording in a bluegrass, country, roots, folk, even bluesy vein. The subject matter ranges from religious ("God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign," "Keep on the Firing Line" and "Little Moses") to the sad plight of orphans ("Motherless Children" and "Poor Orphan Child") and affairs of the heart ("I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes").

"All through the years, even back as far was Carter, when the Stanley Brothers were together, we recorded some songs of the Carter Family, like 'Will You Miss Me' and things like that," says Stanley in a telephone interview from his home. "I knew the Carter Family. For several years now, I've had the idea that I'd like to do a CD as a tribute to the Carter Family. And so it finally came around...I went through some of their songs. I picked out the ones that I thought would suit me. I didn't get a lot of their hit songs because I wanted to do songs that I could put feeling in and that would do good for me."

The Carter songs go back to 1927 with "Poor Orphan Child," for example, being first recorded during the Bristol sessions for Victor Records (the forerunner of RCA Records). Many songs on the Stanley album were originally recorded in the late 1920's.

As a result of the Bristol Sessions, the Carters were ultra popular during their first two decades of recording. Perhaps their best known song was "Keep on the Sunny Side" from 1928, but they had many hits for Victor Records over the next 8 years including "Wabash Cannonball" in 1929 and "Worried Man Blues," which also appears on the Stanley disc, in 1930.

The Carters recorded more than 300 songs for a variety of labels including Decca and a Sears record label. Sara and Maybelle did most of the singing, while A.P., who found and arranged many of the songs, sometimes sang harmony.

While obviously closely aligned to the Carter Family style, what was it about the Carters that spoke to Stanley?

"It just had a sound, the sound of these mountains and these hills, where I was born and raised," says Stanley. "You could tell it was authentic...They were about 40 miles from where I'm from. They spoke like I do. They seemed to put feeling into it like I like to do. I've always loved the Carter Family singing."

Stanley has his father to thank for being introduced to the Carters. "My dad bought a radio way back in 1936, and I believe about that time, they had an early morning show on (radio) station (XERA) near...Mexico," says Stanley. "I think that's where I first heard him, and that was back in the late '30s. And I heard their records then."

Stanley was 9 at the time, having been born Feb. 25, 1927 in Dickenson County, Va. Coal mines, saw mills and farms dotted the landscape. Stanley and brother Carter learned about music from their mother, who played five-string banjo. Ralph worked in a sawmill run by his father, although his father, a moonshiner, took off from the family when Ralph was 13.

Despite growing up near the Carters, Stanley says, "I never did see the Carter Family together, but I did meet Sara and Maybelle. I played shows with Maybelle. A.P., I met him later him after they all broke up."

The Carters recorded together until 1943. A.P. and Sara had split up in 1932, but continued recording and doing concerts. Maybelle later become part of Johnny Cash's road show and teamed up with her sister to record a reunion CD in 1967.

Carter and Ralph Stanley started singing together as teens. Following service in the Army, they formed a band, debuting on the radio in 1946 as the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys.

They worked at a station in Norton, Va. before moving over to the Farm and Fun Time radio show at WCYB in Bristol, making their music accessible in a five-state area. Radio shows were a typical way of getting attention by country and bluegrass acts in the 1940s and 1950s.

"A.P., he lived close to Bristol, and he came to the station and got him a 15-minute show on it. I saw him every day for awhile. I was real good acquaintances with him...He fixed him a little place to have shows there where the Carter Fold is now. (the Carter Fold is a performance center on the Carter homestead) The Stanley Brothers - me and Stanley - he booked us one Sunday."

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