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Ralph Stanley roams on

By Jeffrey B. Remz, July 2006

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The song concerns a man leaving his home for distant shores only to want to return home. "He didn't find what he thought he might found. He wanted to come back home and renew it...Home's hard to beat," says Stanley.

"I sing a lot of songs that I could have experienced, but I haven't. But I could feel something there, that if it had happened to me, why I wonder how I (would) feel. That's the way I like a song, not necessarily it's happened to me, but it could happen to anybody."

Good thing because Stanley sings "Worried Man Blues," a song about being in jail. "I've done a lot of songs about that too, but I've never been in jail I guess...I could have been."

Stanley, perfectly friendly during the conversation, holds back from answering the obvious question. "I better not say, a lot of things I guess. I do a lot of things through life that we don't appreciate we get older."

This was not his first stab at the song. "We recorded that song before, maybe with some different words and just a little bit different melody, and I tried to get the melody that they got and the words that they use."

"I've always liked it. I wanted to record their version of it too. I've always sung tenor on it before, and I wanted to lead that song my way. Their style my way."

Stanley covers sad topics like death in "Motherless Children," a bleak story about a mother dying. "I liked that song, but if you notice, I did it altogether different, a cappella and my own arrangement...I just thought it might sound good a cappella, and so I wanted to do that."

'That's a true song, and it's got a lot of good words to it, and it's got a lot of meaning to it. Just like 'O Death.' 'O Death' was never recorded a cappella, and that was my idea. I just thought I could put more feeling (into it). I didn't feel like I could sing it good enough with music, and I thought maybe I could wind it out and put everything I had into it a cappella."

Religion has been part of Stanley's music, recording religious songs on the tribute and full-fledged gospel albums in the past. Here, Stanley recorded "Keep on the Firing Line" because "we needed a song that had a little bit more of a beat to it, and I liked the song too. It was sort of gospel I thought would appeal to the people too. Going back again, I thought I thought I could do a good job."

Stanley makes no bones about the role of religion in his life, attending a Baptist church as a boy. "I know God is it, and he's all of it. Without the Lord, you couldn't breathe, you couldn't do nothing. He's always been number one with me...I was baptized about six years ago, and I'm real close to God because I know without Him, I wouldn't be nothing. He gave me my talent. He gave me everything I got. He took care of me through the years, maybe doing things I shouldn't have done, but he was there with me."

And while certainly not preachy in concert, Stanley says he is glad his religious music affects people. "I can feel them myself, and it does me good to see people in the audience that are enjoying them. A lot of people have told me they've done a lot for people who needed Jesus, and I hope I have. I know during the Down From the Mountain Tour, several night, people were shouting...One night there were about three teenage boys come up to the bus after this show. They said when we come tonight, we was non believers, and after you sung that 'Amazing Grace,' they said we'll meet you in heaven. I feel like I've touched people...I'll be 80 years my next birthday, he might have a reason for that. I hope I have touched a few people and brought them in."

Although Burnett heads the label, he served as executive producer, leaving most of the chores to Ehrlich and Neuwirth. "It fell in place for them to do that I guess," says Stanley. "I think T Bone was busy and doing something, but he finally came in and helped to mix it." Stanley says he did not care that Burnett was unable to produce. "I...just wanted it as good as it could mix it."

Why the long gap until releasing the disc? "I really don't know," says Stanley. "Larry Ehrlich and Bob Neuwirth...I really don't know (why) they sort of delayed it, put it on the shelf, you know, but they finally got back into it and put it out. I don't know why they did that."

"I kept on after them," says Stanley about putting the CD out.

"If I was going to do it again, I'd pick the same songs. At least most of them."

While many performers are happy to sit back in the rocking chair, Stanley and his band continue to hit the road, performing in concert and at bluegrass festivals throughout the year.

"I don't know," says Stanley about why he's so active. "I like to do it - I like to know that I'm helping people. So many people have asked me 'when are you ever going to retire? Are you going to retire?' I'm going to retire when God tells me to."

Stanley seems to view the road as a mixed bag. "I really don't enjoy traveling any more. I have a bus with a bed and bath in it. I can rest any time I want to. Actually, I feel better when I'm doing that than when I'm home sitting around. You sort of get stale. You don't feel as good. I feel better when I get going. I guess it's just in me to do that."

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