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It's a tradition with Ralph Stanley II

By Rick Bell, February 2002

Page 2...

"He can get some good stuff out of you," he says. "He got the best tone out of me, like on (the Mel Tillis song) 'Ruby.' I really like that vocal. I think this is the best record I ever did."

Justifiably, he's also proud of his heritage. And it rings true in the album's title cut, where Stanley declares that "It ain't country or rock 'n' roll," but that we'll soon all be "singing and moaning them Stanley Blues."

It's already a tradition that's extending to his young family. Stanley was married just 18 months ago, and he included the instrumental number "Taylor Brooke" on the album dedicated to his daughter. In fact, he and his wife, Kristi, may have the beginnings of their own little Angel Band.

Kristi, a Kentucky native, who never put it down on a recording before, sang with Ralph Sr. on last year's "Clinch Mountain Sweethearts" album. Among Stanley's other duet partners were Sara Evans, Joan Baez, Lucinda Williams, Iris Dement and Pam Tillis.

Stanley says Kristi held her own with the other singers. Not surprisingly, she was fronting her own band when they first met.

"She had a little country band, and they'd come play around our hometown," he says. "Dad and me went to see one of her shows, and we just struck up a relationship after that."

No doubt, his father was equally impressed with her vocal abilities.

"Dad was getting ready to do the album, and he asked her, 'Would you like to sing one with me?' She told him, 'Aw, I ain't nothing,' but he told her, 'You're a really good singer' and convinced her to do it. I think she did as good a job as anyone on the album."

Whether Stanley's little Angel Band ever evolves remains to be seen. But a solo career remains a goal.

"I've always wanted to pursue a solo career; I have a lot of songs, and I love touring on my own. I feel real confident in my abilities," he said.

During the solo tour these past couple of weeks he's molded the band to not only do his songs, but to deviate from the playlist.

"The last part of the show I ask the crowd what they want to hear. They'll holler out a bunch of songs, and we'll play them. That's how good this band is."

"We'll also do 'Zion's Hill,' which we don't normally do. Dad cut it back in the '70s, and it's one I wanted to do."

One song that is a staple of the show is "Man of Constant Sorrow," though not because every bluegrass fan from Seattle to South Florida wants to hear it. The Stanley Brothers recorded the song, which was written even before the Depression and is the key tune in the "O Brother" soundtrack, in the mid-1950s.

The Clinch Mountain Boys version hasn't given way to the film's recording, Stanley says.

"I like the rocked-up version," he said, "but we still do the old version, the way Dad done it. John is singing high tenor, and he sounds like Dad. A lot of people don't want to forget the old way it was done. We use that lonesome dwell, where it's slowed down with the high voice."

As much as Stanley wants to keep one foot in bluegrass, he also has his eye on country. Yet, a lot of what he hears today on the radio isn't what he'd define as country music.

"I'm kind of traditional," he says in what could qualify as an early contender for understatement of the year. "I don't ever want to disappoint Dad's fans. I could probably pursue a country career. I'd like to do both. I'd like to carry two bands to keep everyone happy."

Yet, that sound likely won't include the sonics of a Tim McGraw or a Toby Keith. It's traditional country or nothing, he says.

"A lot of my songs could have been hits for George Jones or Mel Street," he says.

His tastes don't deviate far from that, either. Though he admires the artistry of Nickel Creek, he's not quite sure where their music fits in.

"I don't know what to call Nickel Creek," he says of the bluegrass trio. "They are some of the greatest musicians I've heard, but I'm more into the traditional flavors. I'm listening to the Stanley Brothers, Randy Travis, Flatt & Scruggs and George Jones."

"I'm sunk into traditional music. I don't want to expose my mind to anything else. Why try to be something you can't be?"

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