Ralph Stanley II: Carryin' On

July 4, 2001
By Russ Ringsak

Talking on the phone, Ralph Stanley II, or "Ralph II", as he is sometimes called, comes across as a quiet man.

He speaks directly, in a measured cadence that is in itself both musical and matter-of-fact, and it strikes one immediately as a voice that simply would not lie to you. It doesn't sound like a voice that would even try to put spin on a subject.

Like his name suggests, Ralph II is the son of Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley. For the past several years, Ralph II has been playing guitar and singing lead vocals with his father's band, The Clinch Mountain Boys.

It's something you don't see much of anymore — fathers teaching their sons a trade, and perhaps opening a few doors along the way. At least this is what I thought when I suggested that what he and his father are keeping alive in the band is more than the music. They are continuing a tradition, a way of life. It was a long and clumsy question, to which Ralph II politely responded: "Well, I guess you could say that.... but I taught myself, really, to play, and I had the desire to get where I'm at. But I have learned a lot, from him, just travelin' with him, singin' with him -- he's just -- well, I'd call him a wise man."

Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys currently lists eight players: Dr. Ralph Stanley, Jack Cooke, James Price, James Shelton, Steve Sparkman, Ralph Stanley II, John Rigsby and E. C. French, although not all appear on every tour. The band's personnel has changed over the years, but the current make-up seems to be striking a chord with fans.

"Now this band here we've got, we've been together for almost seven years," said Ralph II, "and there's a lot of people who said that in the last two years they think it's the best band that he's ever had. They didn't say that when we first started with it... they never do, you know, but I'm glad they think that now, because he's had some great bands down through the years."

Asked if being in the Clinch Mountain Boys is a lot like being in any other band, with the same hazards, the long hours on the road, the mechanical breakdowns, the occasional promoter coming up short on money and so forth, Ralph Stanley II said, "Yeh, it's the same stuff, y'know. Travel the roads, ride from West Virginia to Florida overnight.... it's kinda rough, but it's worth it, to be able to play the music."

The Clinch Mountain Boys live in parts of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, and typically meet at the tour bus in Coeburn, Virginia, on a Wednesday or a Thursday and return on Sunday; longer tours usually run a couple of weeks. (Coeburn is a town of 2165 in the western spear tip of Virginia, squeezing out there in between Kentucky and Tennessee. It sits right between the towns of St. Paul and Tacoma.) He said food on the road is "mostly grab McDonald's, whatever you can grab... then usually on the way back home, you can stop at a nice restaurant... get a good meal."

In August 2000, Ralph II married Kristi Ison of Pikesville, Kentucky. He and his wife now have a six-week-old child. "Just had a new baby, yeh, June the seventeenth. Her name is Taylor Brooks. A little girl.... she's a good'n."

The Friday before our show (July 7) Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys will be in Chaffee, New York, and in Abingdon, Virginia, the day after. It seemed like a lot of driving over the weekend to me, and Ralph II said it always is, but added that they have two drivers.

"We shotgun, y'know, to keep'em awake," he explained. "Dad requires you to do that. We keep 'em up--read the map or if you don't have a map, read the signs, whatever they need. Dad makes you sit up there with'em to the morning hours, from eleven to eight, you gotta be there. We split it up, about three-four hours apiece, 'cause you don't want to get lost and you sure don't want a driver to fall asleep. And if anybody up there with him goes to sleep, he used to have this little horn, and he'd blow it -- pretty loud little horn, y'know, and any time he'd catch you to sleep he'd go up there and blow it. He also had a big cow horn, you know what that is?"

"No, I've never heard of it."

"Well, you'd blow it and it's real loud too. But he doesn't have anything any more because nobody goes to sleep any more, so he doesn't need it. He's weaned everybody. Used to be a real experience, havin' that horn blow in your ear when you're sleepin."

Aside from playing and recording with his father, Ralph Stanley II has ventured out on his own in recent years. In 1999, he came out with Listen to My Hammer Ring, and in the spring of last year, Pretty Girls & City Lights.

Toward the end of this year, Ralph II said he expects to be releasing a third CD, Stanley Blues. The CD will include a song of the same name that he wrote. He said the song's "got a good beat and it tells the story of us on the road a lot... I don't know how to say it. It's what we're doin', I guess. When you hear it you'll understand what it is. But it's a good song."

It seems that conversation with people from the south in general requires that you relax and learn the art of the pause. You find yourself jumping in too soon, jumping in behind commas and semi-colons that were meant to be a resting place before the speaker continued; you hop in there and immediately realize that the train of thought has a caboose down the line and you just uncoupled the the train somewhere in the middle. If a person can learn the simple courtesy of letting the speaker pause and reset the story they will be thought of as wise in this country, especially in the urban north where we often perceive a silence, no matter how brief, as an awkward thing; a gap in need of an impulsive filling.

It's an impulse well worth resisting, in my humble opinion.

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