Release Date: SEPTEMBER 2008

By Dennis Roger Reed

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To the dilettante, bluegrass is just one flavor of country. The truth is far more intertwined, though in today's radio market bluegrass is considered too country for country. Apparently no one told Ralph Stanley II about this, so he's just released a great country/bluegrass recording.

Ralph Stanley IIis the son of Ralph Stanley, the reigning patriarch of bluegrass. He's travelled and performed with his father and his father's band The Clinch Mountain Boys since he was old enough to stand, and has served as the lead singer of the group since the age of 16, filling the shoes of former leads Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Larry Sparks and of course Carter Stanley.

But with maturity, Ralph Stanley III's voice has deepened and is a resonant instrument more reminiscent of George Jones or Randy Travis than Bill Monroe or his father. Ralph II has always had a love of country music, especially the stuff that is more honky-tonk than bluegrass. "People get all caught up in labels," says Stanley, "what's country and what's bluegrass. I guess there's a place for that. But all I look for are songs that ring true to me." Stanley has recorded two solo records that were Grammy nominated.

The instrumentation is bluegrass, rather than honky tonk country. No drums, no pedal steel guitars. Mandolins and banjos are used instead. Players include Tim Crouch on fiddle and guitar; Randy Kohrs on resophonic guitar; Cody Kilby on guitar; Harold Nixon on bass; Adam Steffey on mandolin and Ron Stewart on banjo. Harmonies come from Dale Ann Bradley, Steve Gully, Jim Lauderdale, Marty Raybon, and Darrin Vincent. Production values are sparkling, and the performances uniformly appealing.

It's all about the songs, and Stanley chooses well. On this project, Stanley only carries two co-writes, but has found some great new tunes, and also covers well known songwriters Garth Brooks, Elton John, Lyle Lovett, Tom T. Hall and Townes Van Zandt.

Lyle Lovett's L.A. County is a tough cover, but Stanley sings with Jim Lauderdale on what is the closest to bluegrass this project treads, and manages to still evoke the creepiness of the original while imparting his own spin. Hall's Train Songs tells a funny story of a musician that attempts to please an old patron by playing every train song he knows. Stanley co-wrote Honky Tonk Way with Jake Jenkins, and the tune captures Stanley's "road focus."

By far the most striking song on the project is Fred Eaglesmith's Carter. Carter Stanley was Ralph Stanley's brother and duet partner. He passed away in 1966, well before Ralph II was born. Carter and Ralph created an otherworldly bluegrass harmony duet, and Ralph struggled for some time before dedicating himself to continuing the legacy he had begun with Carter. Eaglesmith is a stellar craftsman, and this is an incredibly strong, emotion tugging song in any arena. When performed by Ralph II, it creates an impact not found often in recorded music. It's that good.

This is a fine project that straddles two genres very comfortably. Stanley is a great talent still developing.

Dennis Roger Reed is a singer-songwriter, musician and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He's released two solo CDs, and appeared on two CDs with the newgrassy Andy Rau Band and two CDs with the roots rockers Blue Mama. His prose has appeared in a variety of publications such as the OC Weekly and MOJO magazine. Writing about his music has appeared in an eclectic group of publications such as Bass Player, Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Blue Suede News and Sing Out! His oddest folk resume entry would be the period of several months in 2002 when he danced onstage as part of both Little Richard's and Paul Simon's revues. He was actually asked to do the former and condoned by the latter. He apparently knows no shame.