Ralph Stanley Goes Back in Time

After recording 185 albums and spending more than 50 years in the music business, Ralph Stanley decided to try something new. He laid down tracks for his first solo album, Ralph Stanley. Released in June, the set debuted at No. 22 on Billboard’s country album chart, outselling all other new country releases and earning the “Hot Shot Debut” designation.

Most of Stanley’s past projects have been with his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, with his late brother, Carter, as the Stanley Brothers, or with other country and rock stars such as Bob Dylan, Dwight Yoakam and Patty Loveless .

Singer-songwriter and one-time Dylan collaborator T Bone Burnett was the executive producer for Stanley’s new disc. Burnett also produced the six-times-platinum movie soundtrack, O Brother, Where Art Thou, which contains Stanley’s haunting reading of “O Death.” The performance earned a Grammy in February.

“I’ve always sung old-time music,” Stanley explained in a recent interview, “and I’ve always said that I would never use electric instruments or anything like that to go forward [with my music]. As T Bone puts it, ’I went backward to go forward’.”

Stanley travels back in time musically on the 11-cut album, with tunes such as “The Death of John Henry,” recorded by Uncle Dave Macon in 1926; Blind Gary Davis’ “Twelve Gates to the City” from 1938; and the ancient revenge ballad “Mathie Grove.” The album’s first single – and Stanley’s first-ever video – is “Girl From the Greenbriar Shore,” a Carter Family song from 1941.

“There’s some of the songs I heard when I was a real small boy, but I had never sung any of them,” Stanley says of the repertoire he and Burnett worked out together. “I can tell what kind of a song suits me when I hear it the first time, if I think I can sing it, and that’s the way I judged them.”

Stanley says Burnett challenged him in the studio. “He showed me things that I had never done before. I’ve got the voice to do what he wants, but he don’t tell me how to do that.”

Burnett also offered suggestions to Stanley on instrumentation and tempo. “Maybe I’d let a banjo break on a song. He’d say well, now I believe a fiddle would sound better on that, or I think a guitar will sound better on that. It’s just maybe a little fast or a little slow. I believe I’d pick that up a little. I’d believe I’d slow it down a little. He knows what he’s doing.”

Stanley also credits Burnett with expanding the 75-year-old singer’s audience through the popularity of the O Brother soundtrack and the two Down From the Mountain tours. His video will be shot on a Down From the Mountain date.

“I’ve been on the road about 55 years, and I know I’ve got a lot better known, and I can tell I’m noticed by a lot more people, and a lot younger people,” Stanley says. “Even little kids, 4 and 5 years old, will come up and tell me how they enjoyed that ’O Death.’ That surprised me a little bit.”

Stanley’s mountain soul vocals are backed on the new album by the same musicians who provided music for him on the O Brother CD and the Down From the Mountain tour. On stage, he sings with Norman Blake (guitar, mandocello), Stuart Duncan (fiddle, banjo), Mike Compton (mandolin) and Dennis Crouch (bass).

That means, of course, that he’s not singing with his accomplished and trusted backing band, the Clinch Mountain boys. “I’m beginning to get used to it,” Stanley says of working without his companions. “It’s a little different, but both bands are great.”

Stanley still tours with his band when he’s not on the Down From the Mountain circuit. He hopes they can join him on a projected third leg. Details are still being worked out, but he believes the next round of shows will be a tribute to his music.

Stanley is enjoying the fruits of his increased popularity. He recently bought his wife a Jaguar and treated himself to a Mercedes.

“I’ve always made a good living and not wanted for anything,” he muses, “but this has really improved it a lot.”