It is now more than 20 years since a pre-teenaged Ralph Stanley II (known since childhood by his family, friends and musical peers as "Two") first appeared on stage as part of the Clinch Mountain Boys, the band formed by his father Ralph and late uncle Carter Stanley.
Following Carter's passing in 1966, the roster of talents who took his place on lead vocals and guitar included Larry Sparks, Roy Lee Centers, Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley (who would become an inspirational figure for the younger Ralph). As the years rolled on, Ralph II earned his own slot in the band as lead vocalist, produced himself on a string of solo albums (two of which, "Stanley Blues" and "Carrying On" earned Grammy nominations), and started a family that now includes a daughter, Taylor, and a son named – of course – Ralph III.
Now in his mid-thirties, Ralph II has been prominent on his dad's recent recordings as a band member, but the recent release of "Side By Side" represents the first collaboration between father and son, and a continuation of the long association of the Stanley name with Rebel Records.
Co-produced by Ralph II and longtime friend John Rigsby (also a Clinch Mountain Boy alum), the disc gives both father and son ample room to flex their vocal talents, solo and duet. The elder Ralph's voice, of course, is renowned for sounding as old as the Virginia hills of his birth, even when he was still a teen when he and Carter first started. The younger Ralph's voice is a low baritone more in the tradition of his idol Whitley, and he says he's gotten comfortable singing with dad over the years.
"It ain't a challenge anymore, I just want to blend with him and phrase good with him. I know that I can, and I thought that we done a heck of a job on this album, both of us."
Noting that he now fronts his own band, Stanley continues, "I've been on my own now for six years...I've been out there, and by doing that, it really took me to another level, and I got more confident in what I am and what I was doing. So I was ready to go in there and knock it out of the park. (Dad and I) sing good together, and it was just something I didn't even think about. We just went in there and did it."
A good example is their reprise of Ernest Tubb's "Are You Waiting Just For Me?"
"I chose that...Dad just came in and sang, pretty much what we told him to. He didn't really pick anything on this album. He just wanted to do the album and told me to handle it. Mark Freeman and Dave (Freeman, son-and-father Rebel honchos), they picked a few out. I heard dad and Carter do that (song) on a record years ago, that didn't get out a whole lot, and that's the reason I wanted to do it...I thought well, that would be something different here."
Another nugget dug out from the Stanley Brothers repertoire was "Dirty Black Coal," written by his father with Earl Sykes.
"That was on a tape dad did about '88 or '89, it's called ‘Like Father, Like Son'. At the time, I was just a little boy, and Dad put me on the cover of the album with him, put my name on there with him, and I did two songs on it. I played a guitar instrumental and a solo song called ‘The Haunted House' I sang when I was maybe 9 or 10 years old. That was on Copper Creek…(on) tape, you can't get it anymore. I don't believe it ever was released on CD, so I told (the Freemans) about the song."
"I don't think they (were) very excited about it at the beginning, but they just kind of trusted my judgment on it…I told them, that's a good thing, that you don't know what it is because it's going to be new to a lot of people, a lot of people have never heard this song. I knew that too, and I always liked it from the day dad recorded it back then."
Asked about his personal favorite on the disc, Stanley quickly says, "I can listen to every one of them and be tickled to death, and proud." He pauses a moment, then mentions "Nobody Answered Me," a song with striking similarities to one of the most treasured Stanley Brothers singles, "Rank Stranger," and in fact both tunes are credited to Albert Brumley, the renowned gospel writer and composer whose work has been widely covered in the country music industry since the 1930s. It's a story of coming home to find no one there.
"That's a very heartfelt song," Stanley says, "and it makes you think...someday you're going to knock on the door, and there ain't going to be nobody there. It's true to life, even though right now you don't think about it, but there'll come a day, if you live, you're gonna lose some of your loved ones...dad and Carter recorded it in a basement. I never had heard it, and a guy from Maryland mailed it to me and told me...he'd like to see me put that on (an album). He felt like I could do it better than anybody else with dad since Carter wasn't around anymore."
Rumors have swirled for the past year that the senior Ralph plans to retire for good following the 2014 festival season, and he has cut back on his touring in recent years, but his son laughs and says he's as much in the dark as the rest of us as to what his dad's plans are, adding, "I don't want to see him hang it up...As long as he's got some shows to do, I think that keeps him motivated."
As for his own evolving performing and recording career, Stanley says, "Every one you do, you learn. I know I'm better now than I was then. I think it's like wine, (it) gets better with age...Dad, he's always been a great singer, but I think the older he got, the better he got, and that's really saying something. He's always been great. But he's been blessed to be his age and still have health, and keep his voice the way he has...he's always took care of himself pretty good, and the Good Lord has blessed him."
"I know (my band and I have) improved a whole lot, and I think the production shows in the record, how good we done it – good song selection...all the instruments had good tones, the voices were pretty well-matched, nobody was drowning nobody out. I thought, when you were listening to me and dad sing on the chorus...you didn't have to strain to hear either one of us...I thought it was pretty well done this time."
There is, of course, another generation coming, currently age eight – "Dad calls him ‘Three', yeah, that's what he nicknamed him," Stanley laughs. As was the case with his own growing up, the next Ralph Stanley won't be forced into the business by a "stage dad." While the youngster is beginning to show some musical inclination, he's not following quite the same arc.
"When I was two years old, I was trying to run up on the stage. But maybe it's best for him to wait a little while. I guess things happen for a reason. If he's gonna do it, in the next couple of years, I think it'll come out of him. I figure by the time he's 10 or 11 years old, he's gonna have to start playing, start getting into it. He don't have to though, either. That's up to him. I ain't gonna force him. Dad never forced it on me. He's just gonna have to listen to the records like I did. I got deep into the records, and I loved that sound, I loved that style of music, and I just wanted to do it. That's what he's gonna have to do, if he wants to do it, and I hope he does. But I'm not going to sit and say, ‘you have to do it.'"