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O Brother, Ralph Stanley is a sweetheart

By Jeffrey B. Remz, November 2001

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Stanley seemed enthusiastic about the idea. "I just decided that would try to do an all-girl project," he says.

The way each song worked, Stanley would sing backing harmonies with the female taking over the lead singing role.

That suited Stanley just fine and was not exactly a new role for him. Brother Carter sang most of the leads during their years together.

"My brother was the lead singer, so I sang some," says Stanley. "He was a good lead singer."

"There are songs I can sing lead on better, and songs I can sing tenor on better. So, that's how it worked out."

In picking songs for the disc, VornDick says, "I put together a list, and I asked Ralph if he had anybody he wanted too. He came up with Jeannie Seely. Since Bob Dylan was on the last project, I thought it fitting to have Joan Baez on this one. I just kind of made the judgment, and they went along with me. Ralph didn't know a lot of those artists on 'Clinch Mountain Country.' The main thing was that I was trying to find women that wanted to sing with Ralph that always wanted to, and this made it available for them to do so."

The way the project worked was the singer would offer a Stanley Brothers song to sing. In almost every case, the selection process worked out just fine.

Singers on the new disc include country singers Sara Evans ("Are You Tired of Me, Darling"), Chely Wright ("Angel Band") and Pam Tillis ("Will You Miss Me") plus edgier artists like Dolly Parton ("Loving You Too Well"), Iris Dement - the only singer with two songs among the 16, Lucinda Williams ("Farther Along") Gillian Welch ("Oh, Death"), who also was on the previous "Clinch Mountain Country" and Melba Montgomery ("Rank Stranger").

"I didn't really know who would be good to do what with," Stanley says. "I figured that each girl would usually select a Stanley song. I knew I could sing any Stanley sing, so I wanted to do their favorite or the one they thought they could do best."

"If I'd a chosen a song for them record, they might not have known that song. I wanted them to do a song they knew and was familiar with."

"I was perfectly satisfied with each one's choice," he says.

A gentle, easy going person, Stanley praises everyone who participated. "I couldn't be happier, I want to thank every one of them."

Friends since the mid-'60's, VornDick says Stanley "was trusting in me that the voice would work with his. In some cases, it worked fine. In some cases, the girls couldn't sing in their normal range because Ralph couldn't sing harmony range above them. So they had to come down (in their range)."

"Once we found a key that was comfortable for them and Ralph, there were no problems."

Rebel Projector Coordinator Mark Freeman initially was skeptical about including Baez.

"To be honest with you, I'm not a huge fan of Joan, and Dad (label head Dave Freeman) isn't really either. I think Dad was hesitant or skeptical, and then they went to Ralph, and he said he'd love to have Joan on the record. They had played at Newport."

"We just didn't feel it would be a good fit, no disrespect to Joan of course. But we were proven wrong fortunately."

Baez turned in a performance on "Weeping Willow."

Stanley knew of Wright, Evans, and Wright because he had previously heard their records.

Regarding singing with Evans, who grew up in a family band playing bluegrass in Missouri, Stanley says, "I wanted her to, and I had Bill contact her. She says she started singing bluegrass when she was young, and she certainly sang bluegrass that day too."

Perhaps one of the most unusual pairings was Stanley with one greenhorn in the recording studio, Kristi Stanley on "I'll Never Grow Tired of You." She just happens to be his daughter-in-law, married to Ralph II, who sings vocals in Ralph's band.

Kristi Stanley grew up in Pikeville, Ky., the same region that was home to Loveless and Yoakam. "I heard him growing up the whole time when I was growing up on the radio," says Stanley who lives literally next door to her father-in-law. "I remember dancing to him as a little girl, so it was kind of funny."

At 20, she already is a mother and isn't set on a recording career at all. Despite the family ties, Stanley says she was not exactly at ease in the recording studio. She picked a different song, but Ralph wanted to sing the song they eventually did.

"I was intimidated. I was scared to death as anybody would be I would believe, but it was a great experience."

Stanley says she eventually relaxed in the studio. "I think I finally did," she says. "They loosened me up a little bit."

Her father in law says, "My wife especially wanted to make sure she sang a song with me. We hadn't done any singing together before. We just went in the studio, rehearsed it and recorded it."

"She done a wonderful job," he says. "A lot of the girls were nervous, and I figured would be a little nervous. But I knew she would get over it. I knew she could do it."

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