It’s not often that a stomach virus can help inspire a song. In Kristi Stanley’s case, it was a bug that forced her to take to her bed while offering the opportunity to meditate on her mother’s memory. She drifted off to sleep and it was then that she says a melody suddenly came to her and woke her from her slumber. She jotted down the notes and all at once the feelings she had hoped to express came with a clarity she hadn’t experienced before.
Presumably, that’s what led her to record her stellar debut, the aptly named Heart Wide Open. She had garnered plenty of experience beforehand; born and raised in Kentucky, the sound of bluegrass was always near. She grew up admiring Dolly Parton, and after she made her professional debut on a live radio show called Home Spun Country at the age of 15, she formed her first band with the show’s deejay. Calling the group Sandy River, the two soon found themselves opening for the likes of Kenny Chesney, Billy Ray Cyrus and other stars of the country circuit. Steadily gigging throughout her high school years, she got her big break when the late Dr. Ralph Stanley tapped her to perform on his album Clinch Mountain Sweethearts, where she sang alongside Dolly Parton, Pam Tillis, Sara Evans and Chely Wright. At age 18, she was well on her way.
Dr. Stanley gave her another gift as well. She married his son Ralph Stanley II a little over two years ago.
Still, inspiration aside, it wouldn’t do Stanley justice to attribute the success of Heart Wide Open to her family ties alone. Aided and abetted by a solid cast of support players, she creates a sound as solid and seasoned as that of any longtime veteran. She exudes a clarity and confidence that provides songs such Miner’s Wife, It’s Raining the Blues and Raven Tresses with an assertive sound that rings with drive and determination. Likewise, the wistful ramble of My Heart, the blissful balladry of You’ll Have to Talk to My Heart and the breezy lilt of Never Say Never shows her ability to express emotion in ways that are both palatable and sincere. Although she writes only two of the dozen songs in the set — the exuberant opener, Running Blind, and the comforting closer, My Best Friend — she connects in a way that belies that fact she can’t claim each as her own.
Stanley has made her mom proud, and, we would expect, the rest of her clan as well. Heart Wide Open will likely open quite a few doors for when it comes to her ongoing efforts.