Bluegrass fans of a certain age, who were following the music during the 1970s, will surely recall the soulful music recorded by Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys throughout the decade, when Ralph returned to performing following Carter’s untimely death in 1966.
There was something about this era in Ralph’s career that stands as true and real, distinct to him yet reminiscent of The Stanley Brothers. It was a time that brought us the voice of Larry Sparks and Roy Lee Centers, songs like Katy Daley, All I Ever Loved Was You and Shotgun Slade, and our first introductions to Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley.
Now, 40 years later, Stanley’s son Ralph II has recorded and co-produced a new album that will delight anyone who appreciates this part of his Dad’s legacy. Side By Side features the two Ralph Stanleys, along with a trio of former Clinch Mountain Boys: John Rigsby on mandolin and fiddle, Steve Sparkman on banjo, and Randall Hibbitts on bass.
II tells us that he is delighted with the project, and so pleased to have recorded again with his Dad.
“I intended it to bring back the feel of Dad and Carter, plus the ’70s; freshen it up and be up to date, and show the respect on my part for his music. I wanted to do a lot of songs that he and I never recorded, and ones that Dad hadn’t recorded in many years.
I had got to thinking one day, since I’ve been off on my own for a few years, and with both of us getting older. It hit me that I wanted to do something extra special with him. I didn’t know how it would turn out, but it went way above my expectations. I’ve been wanting to hear this sound again for a long time.”
Couldn’t have said it better. A lot of us been waiting to hear it again as well. We can always go back and listen to the old records, but hearing new music with that familiar sound is a real treat. And this new CD finds Dr. Ralph in fine voice. It may be the best singing we’ve heard from him in years, both on lead and tenor.
Some of the songs they have chosen may be familiar, as several are drawn from the vast Stanley catalog accumulated over the past 60 years. The album opens with Dr. Ralph on a driving version of Wild Bill Jones. But there are new songs as well, including a fresh clawhammer banjo tune, Battle Ax, and a mountain melody, White & Pink Flowers, from Gerald Ellenburg and Shawn Lane.
Of the latter, Ralph II said that when he heard the demo, “I could just hear Ralph doing this with Roy Lee.” There is no higher praise the writers could expect, and these two Stanleys deliver it to perfection.
Stanley recalls Battle Ax as one his dad wrote some years ago.
“I always liked it – it stuck in my head. But I don’t believe he ever recorded it.
When I heard him playing in the living room last year, I said ‘Dad you need to put a clawhammer song on the album.’ He wasn’t sure about that, but he agreed to do it.
We were rehearsing for the album one night at my house. I started humming the song, and he remembered it – picked it right back up.”
From the Stanley Brothers library comes Six Months Ain’t Long, a old timey prison song, and Nobody Answered Me, a track the brothers recorded but never released at a basement studio in Maryland years ago. It’s an Albert Brumley song, and Ralph II said he found it through the grace of a fan.
“This fellow came up at a show, he was a fan of both mine and Dad’s. He asked me about that song, and I didn’t know anything about it. The next time I saw him, he had the Stanley Brothers version on a CD and he gave it to me.
Dad didn’t remember doing it before, but he jumped right in there.”
They do it here as a trio, with II on lead, Ralph on tenor, and Rigsby on baritone.
Ralph II also does a knockout job on Ernest Tubb’s Are You Waiting Just For Me, Don’t Step Over An Old Love, another Stanley Brothers classic, and my favorite on the CD, Dirty Black Coal, which II recorded with his dad as a young boy.
I put that one forward and Dave and Mark Freeman with Rebel didn’t even remember it. It’s like a new song in a way.
There’s a law firm out this way that’s using this song in a commercial across three or four states on TV.”
Darling Little Joe also gets a fine reading by Ralph II, but at a quicker tempo than what you would remember from Carter Family or Bill Monroe recordings.
“We had planned to put a little speed on this one, but we decided to really do it uptempo. I remember hearing my Uncle Carter doing this when I was a kid. He did it uptempo too, but not as fast as we did.”
Particularly moving is Don’t Weep For Me, another new song from Buddy Brock, Gerald Ellenburg and Shawn Lane which the elder Stanley offers a cappella. II said that he had wanted to include one like this, since solo a cappella singing has been such a big part of his Dad’s music.
All the music on Side By Side is strong, and serves as a fine tribute to both Ralph and Ralph II’s contributions to bluegrass. Anyone who enjoys this sort of mountain singing will surely enjoy it, but perhaps none so much as Ralph Stanley II.
“We brought back a sound and a feeling that is precious to me. Steve Sparkman and John Rigsby also really love that era of my Dad’s music.
When Dad got in the studio and heard the tracks, he just got in a zone and captured something special. When he got to hearing all that, it seemed to make him want to dive in. We had done our job right and he wanted to get in and get his part done.
The look on his face was precious. He was so proud to hear it sound right, and to have me doing it.”
Sounds like everyone wins.