Whitesburg KY

‘Little Ralph’ channels Uncle Carter

Points East

When I was just a young lad back in the late fifties and very early sixties of the last century it was not unusual for an old Ford station wagon to pull up in the school yard at Blair Branch Grade School or even into the parking lot at Letcher High School.

Strapped onto the top of the jalopy and usually wrapped in an old but well-fitted tarpaulin was a huge bass fiddle. Every child in every classroom knew who had arrived. We would rise as one and excitedly point out the window as though Santa Claus had arrived in person in the broad daylight.

Sometimes the principal had been notified by postcard that they were going to stop by, but usually the Stanley Brothers arrived unannounced and Carter Stanley, fedora in hand, would knock on the door and ask if the band could come in and play for the students for a few minutes.

The Stanleys played mountain music that thrilled our souls — banjo, mandolin and fiddle blended with vocal harmony that made us shiver from our toes to the tops of our heads.

By comparison, it would be like Bruce Springsteen or the Backstreet Boys or Alan Jackson or some other popular band dropping into your favorite school today. On Blair Branch, when I was a grade school student, every kid knew every word to every song the Stanley Brothers had recorded along with those of Bill Monroe, Flat & Scruggs, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin and numerous other acoustic bands.

But nobody was as popular as the Stanley Brothers, particularly on Blair Branch. After all, they lived not far from Letcher County in Dickenson County, Virginia, and they were already as world famous as we believed anybody from our hills was ever apt to be.

The school visits, and they hit every school in the county, were a marketing ploy to get the word out that while they were playing a few songs free for us during school hours, the real action was going to be at a much larger venue on Friday or Saturday night and we should all go home and beg our parents to show up and pay fifty cents or a dollar a head to see the big performance at a nearby gymnasium or high school auditorium.

It worked. On a few occasions I can remember them playing at Blair Branch to a paying audience on Friday night because they knew we’d fill the school on short notice. My Dad used to say that Carter Stanley sang like an angel but could sell ice to Eskimos at the North Pole on Christmas Day.

When Carter died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1966, most everybody figured the Stanley Brothers were over. The grief was widespread and had as much of an emotional impact on Blair Branch and the rest of eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia as the announcement of Elvis Presley’s death to the larger world a decade later.

And nobody so much as suspected that soft spoken, banjo picking “Silent Ralph” would try to carry on a band that had depended so much on his brother’s leadership. But those of us who know about Ralph Stanley have long since realized Carter was not the only talent in the family.

So I am here to announce today that Carter is not really dead. I have listened over and over to the an album (CD) recorded by Ralph Stanley II on which he sounds so much like his uncle Carter that it’s almost scary.

Little Ralph, as he’s been referred to over the years, has been traveling the world with his dad since he was nine years old. Old Ralph used to put him behind a microphone when it didn’t look like he’d ever learn to carry a tune.

Ten years or so ago, he took over lead singing with his father doing the traditional but wellworn Stanley Brothers standards with nothing much to write home about. But his voice has matured and approaches the quality of his Uncle Carter’s now. Brother Steve says he sounds like Keith Whitley.

His new solo CD entitled “This One is II” is easily the biggest surprise I’ve experienced in acoustic music in a long time. A soulful cross between old-time bluegrass and original acoustic country music, this CD, recorded in Booneville, Ky., by Lonesome Day Records, is equal in quality to anything coming out of Nashville these days.

Little Ralph has a hit on his hands if he can get it played on big-time radio. I happen to like it better in my truck just playing over and over and over again.

In the meantime ask your local music store to stock it. You can also orderthe new album by visiting www.lonesomeday.com.

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