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Ralph Stanley roams on

By Jeffrey B. Remz, July 2006

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"I remember how he introduced the Stanley Brothers that day when we got ready to play," says Stanley. "He said, 'I'd like to introduce you to two boys' and told where we was from...'as far as I know, they're all right...I've never heard nothing on them. As far I know they're all right. So here they are - Carter and Ralph, the Stanley Brothers'."

"He was just an old timer, and he spoke it the way he felt," says Stanley of Carter. "He spoke the country way."

The Stanleys were considered innovative in bluegrass with Ralph's three-finger banjo playing giving the music a driving sound. Carter sang smoother leads while Ralph kicked in with his tenor.

They recorded for the small Rich-R-Tone label and due to their second release, "Little Glass of Wine," a regional hit, they signed with Columbia Records in 1948. They switched to Mercury from 1953-58, recording 45 songs for the label. During this period, Ralph's tenor moved to the forefront of the records.

Releases continued with at least six labels, including King and Starday until 1965. Musically, the Stanleys changed the bluegrass sound by becoming the first band to consistently use a guitar as a lead instrument in secular bluegrass settings. They continued on until Carter's death at 41 in 1966, apparently connected with his heavy drinking.

Ralph considered quitting music - it also proved to be a difficult time for the type of music he purveyed - but he hired Larry Sparks as his lead singer and forged on. He veered towards more traditional mountain, Appalachian music, introducing a cappella quartet singing to bluegrass.

Bluegrass festivals started sprouting up, helping Stanley's career, while recording for labels such as Rebel, one of the leading bluegrass labels.

Stanley continued an active touring schedule, but his prominence rose into the stratosphere with the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack. In what was quite a surprise, the movie soundtrack sold millions. Stanley ended up being on an Opry style "O Brother" and subsequent 'Down From the Mountain" tours with the likes of Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless and Rodney Crowell. Stanley was the featured performer.

After nominations over the years, Stanley also won his first Grammy at the age of 75, for best male country vocal performance for "O Death" and album of the year for "O Brother."

Stanley was introduced to a whole new generation of fans, not just an aging population that was familiar with him for decades.

"A Distant Land to Roam" was recorded in 2003 with Larry Ehrlich, who has known Stanley for more than five decades, and folk singer Bob Neuwirth co-producing. "He came one time to Bristol and recorded some stuff by Carter and me, the Stanley Brothers," says Stanley of Ehrlich, who could not be reached for comment. "Later on, it was released."

Ehrlich picked out several songs, but Clinch Mountain Boy guitarist James Alan Shelton was the key person when it came to presenting songs to Stanley. "Most of the songs, I helped pick out, I researched the songs and brought them to Ralph," says Shelton in a telephone call from his home in Churchill, Tenn., near the Virginia border. "I just took him CDs of Carter Family songs and took him what he thought he could (sing) and what he could like. I tried to pick stuff that was out of the ordinary too."

"I've been with Ralph 12 years, and I've got a pretty good ear for what stuff I thought he might like. Some of the stuff I brought in, he rejected. He's not going to like everything."

Shelton specifically mentioned trying to avoid standards like "Keep On the Sunnyside," "Pick the Wildwood Flower" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." "That stuff has been done to death," says Shelton.

"They sent me the songs," says Stanley. "They probably sent me 50 or 60 songs maybe. Maybe 100 songs. I picked out the songs myself. They had a lots and lots of good songs, but some of the songs wouldn't suit me, my voice, because I just do something that I can feel."

Was it hard for Stanley to figure out if the song was right for him? "Not really. I could listen to one one time and know if I could sing it."

"If I can feel it. I can feel a lot of songs that I just can't sing myself," he says. "I didn't put nothing fake in them. I wanted to put myself in them, my own style that I wanted to do, put my old time sound to it, do it my way."

Stanley says the title track was "just about my favorite song that I ever did. It's good words to me. It's got good melody to it. I felt like I could do a good job singing it. That's why I like it, and that's why I named the album ("A Distant Land to Roam")."

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