By SHANNON WATKINS
“Without the fans and audience, you’re nothing. The way I see it, we’re all God’s children. We all put our pants on one leg at a time.”
Nathan Stanley, 20-year-old grandson of bluegrass and old-time legend Ralph Stanley, waxes rhapsodic about his fans and gives his democratic take on how he views himself as a performer.
It would sound both canned and calculated—deliberately folksy words a PR agent might have written—except for two significant points: first, he speaks with a kind of lionhearted enthusiasm that’s hard to fake.
Second, he says it all in a spontaneous phone interview while going through a car wash.
“Can you hear me OK?” he asks. “I don’t want you to lose me, now.”
He has several albums under his belt already, but Nathan Stanley’s career began when he was still a toddler. “I started when I was two years old the first time. I went on stage at the Grand Ole Opry. The way I saw it, I was onstage with Papaw. Wherever he was, I wanted to be with him.”
Onstage, Dr. Ralph Stanley cuts a spare, neat, dapper figure; his grandson Nathan is younger and burlier but equally dapper. They don’t look much alike at first glance, but Nathan’s singing voice is more than a little reminiscent of his grandfather’s. It’s an observation that clearly pleases him no end.
“I’ve had several people tell me that,” he said. “I take it as a huge compliment. I have so much respect for him. I don’t deliberately try to sing like him. My goal is to carry on the Stanley tradition. For 76 years, it’s been going. He is still doing good, still touring. Whenever he lays it down, I’ll pick it up.”
Nathan was raised by his grandfather and even in his early twenties, when most young people tend to distance themselves from their families to strike out on their own, he still adores his Papaw and feels as close to him as ever.
“When I was little, if Papaw would step back on stage, I would step back on stage. If he’d step forward, I’d step forward,” said Nathan, who still plays shows with his grandfather in addition to touring on his own. “It’s amazing to see the crowd’s response to him and see how much he’s loved throughout the world. To me he’s just like my dad. Even though he’s an international icon, to me he’s Papaw, but as an artist, I respect him as another artist.”
It’s touchingly difficult to get him to talk about his own experience as opposed to extolling Ralph Stanley as a person and a performer, but even harder to get a negative word out of him. Surely there’s something he finds unpleasant in his musical career?
He has to think for a minute.
“I love what I do, I really can’t complain about anything. I’m so blessed to make a living doing the thing I love to do,” he said finally, but when pressed, he admits the thing he likes least is “the traveling.” He should know about that; by his own reckoning, he’s played in every state except Hawaii.
The traveling, though, leads to shows and fans; topics that bring his considerable sunny side back out in full force. His favorite venue?
“I love the Grand Ole Opry. It’s a special place to me, but what makes the place special is the fans. I don’t care if I play the Opry or Carnegie Hall, as long as I’ve pleased the fans.”
As a performer, he freely admits he’s more of a vocalist. Asked if he has a favorite instrument, he responds, “No. I really would not consider myself a musician, picking-wise. I focus on my vocals, but I play rhythm guitar. I like that. Along with the bass, it keeps the timing going.”
Stylistically, he steers away from the modern Nashville pop-country sound, even when he’s doing his own thing. “For my last album I did traditional country music that sounds like stuff from 50 years ago,” he says. “I’m releasing another CD of straight bluegrass in a couple of months. Right now I want to carry on that traditional bluegrass.
“I’m not trying to be Ralph Stanley, I’m trying to be Nathan Stanley,” he asserts, “but I want to preserve the Stanley style.”
Nathan Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys will play at the Little River Blue Grass & Gospel Barn along with Still Lonesome on Friday, March 16 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. Directions: take I-81 exit 105 in Radford; go left onto Little River Dam Road; the barn is three miles down on the left. For more information, call Carl McNeil at (540) 382-0271.