It's a tradition with Ralph Stanley II

Rick Bell, February 2002

The month of February was a coming-out party of sorts for Ralph Stanley II.

Besides the release of his third album, "Stanley Blues" on Rebel, Stanley, who's been picking and singing for nearly a decade as a member of his father's legendary bluegrass band the Clinch Mountain Boys, is finally getting a taste of what it's like to be the front man.

Apparently, he's savoring every moment.

His father, bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley Sr., is on hiatus most of the month to perform in the already critically acclaimed "Down from the Mountain" tour, which mainly features the music and artists from the hit movie soundtrack, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Early reviews are just as positive for the younger Stanley. Apparently bluegrass fans in the Southeast like what they hear from the 23-year-old Stanley, who goes by the nickname "Two." Perhaps more importantly, the Clinch Mountain Boys like their new, albeit temporary boss.

Stanley debuted as a front man in late January in a historic little theater in Paintsville, Ky. He then played the following weekend in Warrenton, Va. and Milton, West Va. They were shows Stanley will not soon forget.

"At the first show in Kentucky, we had close to 400 people," Stanley says in a phone interview from his home outside the southwest Virginia hamlet of Coeburn, just up the road from his father's house. "Then in Warrenton, we 450 people. And we packed the house in West Virginia. We got standing ovations at all of them. It was a real thrill."

Billed as Ralph Stanley II - emphasis on the II - and the Clinch Mountain Boys, he said he felt a little bit of pressure as the tour started.

"It was my first time in front of a band," said Stanley as he tended to his seven-month-old daughter, Taylor Brooke. "I'd front the band if Dad had laryngitis, and I'd occasionally go out and play on my own. But this was Ralph II and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Everyone wants to see if I can do it."

Stanley says his fellow Clinch Mountain Boys enjoyed the experience. The veteran crew - bassist Jack Cooke has been in the 30 years, while banjo player Steve Sparkman has picked alongside the elder Stanley for the past 8 years - told him he fit right in as a bandleader.

"I'm not a bossy kind of guy," he laughs. "Everyone does their job onstage, which makes my job a lot easier. They said I'm a good boss. I just stepped into Dad's role. I know how I like to be treated; it just came natural. I've been around it all my life."

During the tour, Stanley is incorporating five or six of his own songs, including several from "Stanley Blues." Stanley, whose voice is hauntingly reminiscent of not only country legend Keith Whitley, who was a member of the Clinch Mountain Boys in the 1970s. But it also has the rolling, traditional timbre of his uncle Carter Stanley, one-half of the Stanley Brothers, who died in 1966 at age 41.

The 12 tracks offer a peek into what some day may be a big career in country music, though it will be traditional country, Stanley emphatically notes. That career nonetheless will rely heavily on the trademark old-time Stanley soul.

He's already receiving plenty of requests from the new album during concerts. One in particular, "Daddy's Dinner Bucket," strikes a chord with many of his fans.

"I first started playing it onstage last spring when we were recording the album," he says of the song written by Roy Dockery and Bill Jones.

The song recounts a personal story attached to a tragic explosion at the South Mountain coal mine in the late 1980s. The mine, Stanley says, is only about 15 miles from his home in Coeburn.

It recalls a father who took his dinner bucket - a lunch pail to some of us - into the coal mines for 30-odd years. But when they pulled out the 8 miners killed in the blast, the dinner bucket was missing; Daddy had taken it with him through the gates of heaven.

"(Bassist) Jack Cooke knew them and brought me the song," Stanley recalls. "I put some music to it and changed some arrangements. It's really a good song. Bill has brought me two more songs since then that I'd like to record."

Stanley's previous CD, "Pretty Girls, City Lights," enjoyed a bit of commercial success as well.

Unlike the two previous records - "Listen to My Hammer Ring" was his debut album in 1998 - Stanley opted to spend a little more time making "Stanley Blues."

"We used to go in and cut it live," he said.

This time, however, he enlisted Bil Vorndick to co-produce the record. Vorndick, a veteran of both country and bluegrass sessions, has worked with the likes of Ralph Sr., George Jones and Marty Robbins, as well as bluegrass superpickers Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush and Bla Fleck.

"Bil wanted to lay down the tracks first," he says. "We took 2 days to do 12 tracks. Then we took 2 days to do 7 songs. We did the other 5 in 1 day."

By concentrating on the vocals, Stanley says the quality is much crisper and cleaner than his previous efforts.

"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?"

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •