After performing for the past 15 years under the tutelage – and the shadow – of his famous father, Ralph Stanley II is ready to establish his own musical personality. He has a new CD due for release in September, and is leaving The Clinch Mountain Boys to perform with his own group.
This One Is II may come as a surprise to fans who have enjoyed his previous recordings, offering a stylistic departure as sudden as it is stark. I saw “II” only a few weeks ago with the Ralph Stanley show, and while he did perform one song from the new CD, there was no hint from the stage how much of a change he is pursuing.
Hopefully bluegrass fans will give this new project a fair hearing, as the music – if not strictly bluegrass – is very appealing, and well-suited to Stanley’s voice. The sound is a mix of bluegrass and acoustic country, and the instrumentation is all acoustic, without percussion. The most striking differences from his prior releases come in the song choices and the production (by Mike Latterell). Even using the standard bluegrass ensemble (and familiar bluegrass super-pickers), the arrangements are fresh and thoughtful, giving each song the treatment suggested by the melody and lyrics.
For example, the opening track (a cover of Garth Brooks’ Cold Shoulder) uses Tim Crouch’s twin fiddles and Randy Kohrs’ gritty resonator guitar much as a country producer might, and Ralph’s vocals are as reminiscent of Keith Whitley’s early Nashville sound as anything The Stanley Brothers ever cut.
Other strong tracks include a nice version of Lyle Lovett’s, L.A. County (a modern murder ballad), Tom T. Hall’s Train Songs, and Loretta, from Townes Van Zandt. That last – a paean to an idealized girlfriend – makes a very convincing grass tune, and Ralph’s mountain-edged vocals really sell the story.
Randall Deaton of Lonesome Day Records, who will be releasing This One Is II on September 23, tells us that Stanley started this project looking for a change, but wasn’t completely clear where he wanted to go.
“When I first spoke with Ralph on the phone I had never had a conversation with him in my life. The one thing I got from this first conversation was that he wanted to do something else. I didn’t know exactly what it was, and I don’t think he knew what it was either. There was a mix of restlessness, excitement, and fear all rolled into one.
The record evolved after the production began. I think that we all got more and more excited as the process went along because things were turning out better than we had anticipated.”
Stanley describes that evolution thusly…
“It started out as a record that would be half acoustic country and half Stanley sounding. The more we got into it, the more we realized we were making two separate records rather than two halves of one record. We continued in the acoustic country direction.”
Ralph gives a lot of credit for the album’s sound to producer, Mike Latterell.
“Mike started out as the engineer only and became a defacto producer as the album evolved.
I was introduced to Mike by Randall Deaton. Mike had worked on several previous Lonesome Day releases as well as records by Rhonda Vincent, Randy Kohrs, and Jim Lauderdale. He was also an intern for Bill Vorndick when we recorded the Clinch Mountain Country CD.
He also had quite a bit to do with the musical arrangements. Mike was there for every note so he got what he wanted from the musicians.”
In addition to Tim Crouch and Randy Kohors (who also sings harmony vocals), This One Is II has Cody Kilby on guitar, Ron Stewart on banjo, Adam Steffey on mandolin and Harold Nixon on bass. Steve Gulley, Darren Vincent, Marty Raybon and Dale Ann Bradley also provide vocal backup.
The packaging of the CD is also a departure from previous Ralph Stanley II or Lonesome Day projects. It is a fold-out Digipack, and as Brance highlighted last month, follows the new trend of packaging without liner notes or a insert booklet.
“The decision was made in part by the graphics designer Jami Anderson. We wanted the packaging to be bright and vivid but fairly simple. We wanted more visual images in the packaging rather than a lot of words. All the essential information (credits, track listing) is hidden behind the CD. This record is such a departure for Ralph that we knew he would be talking about the songs quite a bit so it didn’t seem nesassary to include a bunch of words in the design.”
This One Is II has shipped to both country and bluegrass radio, so you may be hearing cuts on the air or online soon. Lonesome Day has hopes of seeing the album make waves in a variety of markets.
“We think this is good music that is appealing to a lot of different people. It is very hard to label this CD, played with the traditional bluegrass instruments but sounding a lot like an old country record. We are pushing this album to the country and Americana audience as well as bluegrass.
It has been added to over 50 secondary country stations in the last three weeks. Those are just the ones that our radio promoter is working. We are confident that there are several other stations playing the song but are not on the promoter’s list.”
For his part, Stanley is moving on as a solo artist and as he turns 30, leaving the comfort and security of his dad’s music behind.
“I am putting together a new band as we speak. A very talented musician from Nashville named Todd Livingston is the band leader and he is filling out the remaining members right now.
We have played a couple shows already. I have two more shows to do with the Clinch Mountain Boys and then I am on my own.”
This One Is II should go a long way towards establishing a new musical identity for Ralph Stanley II. Great songs, warmly recorded, with top-notch performances… what more do you need?