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Kentucky singer Kristi Stanley learns to never say never

Upon listening to Kristi Stanley, you hear such sweet vocals that are genuine to the Appalachian sounds of eastern Kentucky.  In talking with her, you learn of a great appreciation that she has of the music of Kentucky.  Whether it is country or bluegrass music, Kristi Stanley’s talents shine through her lyrics and vocals.  I recently spoke with Kristi on her music, as well as her performance at Hillbilly Days in her hometown of Pikeville.  If you recognize that last name and bluegrass roots, you will realize that she is the daughter-in-law to the legendary Dr. Ralph Stanley.  {Ironically my very first interview was with Ralph when I was doing research papers in college.}  Kentucky Country Music featured Kristi Stanley in our Women of Kentucky Music series in March 2019.

Growing up, you loved listening to Dolly Parton and singing her songs.  What was it about Dolly that intrigued you as a child?
I remember growing up watching that tv show years ago.  She had a variety tv show and I just remember watching her and thinking, ‘my goodness she’s amazing in every way – acting, singing, she could do it all.’  I think that was the first thought that I ever had of wanting to be a singer.  We all know she’s a flashy person by looking at her.  She just looked like a superstar to me.  She has such a big personality and my gosh, that voice.  I don’t know her whole presence drawed me to me.  I still stay today that I want to be her when I grow up.  She just has a voice like no other.  I grew up listening to Patty Loveless and Keith Whitley and all of those wonderful artists, but her voice had a haunting to it that just drew me in.  I can’t put my finger on what it was and she still does today.

Have you gotten to meet Dolly yet?
I was at the Opry one time with Dr. Ralph [Stanley] was playing the Opry.  She actually came into the dressing room to speak to him.  She is one of those people that when she walks in a room, I don’t get star struck really, but she was one that I felt my jaw drop to the floor when she walked in.  Even though she is a small person in stature, she has got a huge presence.  I didn’t speak to her, but I was standing right beside her.  She seems to be such a down to earth person.

You mentioned Patty Loveless and Keith Whitley earlier.  Who would be some other musical influences for you?
Growing up, my uncle Larry Coleman, he first introduced me to bluegrass music.  He has since passed on.  He actually, when I was a young kid, brought to my attention who Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys was.  Obviously they were a huge influence, along with Patty Loveless, Loretta Lynn, Keith Whitley, Dolly Parton, and George Jones.  I’ve got so many musical heroes – Merle Haggard, and being from eastern Kentucky, that’s some big shoes to fill.  There have been some wonderful female and male artists to come out of that area.  It is an area that is rich in wonderful music.  I’ve got a ton of people that I grew up listening to.  We would be here all day trying to list them.

I know the feeling on trying to list them all.  One of the big powerful things is the musical voices of Eastern Kentucky.  It’s interesting because folks are just now realizing what a positive thing with music we have here.  However, it has always been there.
You definitely have to give props to Chris Stapleton as he has brought that positive aspect to that area.  You’re right, it seems like they have painted that area to be such a bad thing; bare foot, uneducated area when it’s not.  It’s so rich in so many different things, but especially in music.

One of my earliest memories of you was when you performed “I’ll Never Grow Tired of You” on Dr. Ralph Stanley’s “Clinch Mountain Sweethearts” album.  You sang this at his memorial tribute concert after his passing.  Did you record the song before or after you met your now husband, Ralph Stanley II?
We were actually dating at the time, but weren’t married.  I think I was about 16 or 17 years old when I recorded “I’ll Never Grow Tired of You.”  Actually, my mother-in-law, Ralph II’s mom, asked me to do it.  She had heard me sing and she really liked my voice and she said that she wanted me on this project with Ralph.  So she was the one that actually got me on it. She’s responsible for that and I’m very grateful to her for that.  That’s one of my most cherished memories and most cherished things I’ve ever done.  You can imagine as a young kid, 16-17 years old, how nervous I was.  Dr. Ralph is another one that had a huge presence.  He was the same way.  He would walk in the room and he would command attention.  At the time, when you’re young and Ralph II and I were dating, I actually didn’t know Dr. Ralph that well.  He was wonderful to me, and sweet, kind, and patient.  It is one of my most cherished things I got to do.

All of Dr. Ralph Stanley’s bandmates were always so kind.  I always had fond memories of James Alan Shelton, who passed away a few years ago.  They were always reverend in their presence when around Ralph and were respected by fellow musicians.
We miss James and Jack Cooke.  He always had good band members and we sure do miss them all.

You have got a full schedule coming up, which includes several performances in Kentucky.  When was the last time you performed at Hillbilly Days?
I guess when I had my own band years ago, we played Hillbilly Days.  That’s been many years ago, but this will be the first time doing a show in my hometown.  I look forward to playing the music off of my new album, like “Never Say Never.”  I look so forward to seeing the response from people that did see me growing up and saw me perform in my country band at the time.  It is the first time Ralph Stanley II and I are performing on the same stage in Pikeville.  We have done years ago gotten up and done a duet together, just for fun.  This is kind of been the first time that we’ve been billed performing together.

Do you remember the first time you heard yourself on the radio?
Yes I do.  I have to rewind back when I was in high school.  I had a country band and there was a show on the local radio station in Pikeville – 93.1 WDHR.  They had a show called Homespun Country and the dj of that show was in my band.  I had taken a tape that I had recorded at the Mountain Arts Center in Prestonsburg.  I had gone down there and recorded a few songs for fun.  I took it up there and he played it on that show.  I’ll never forget sitting and listening to myself on there.  As a kid, you’re thinking wow and that it is a funny feeling hearing yourself.  That was on a small scale.  Fast forward to now, the first time I heard myself on Sirius XM on Bluegrass Junction, I cried.  I felt like that my hard work had paid off for one.  Another thing, my mom has passed away 10 years now and I wanted her to hear it so bad.  I thought to myself, she’s not here to hear this, but maybe she is.  It was the proudest moment and even to this day when it comes on the radio, it takes my breath a little bit.  It’s so surreal in a lot of ways.

Hearing yourself being played on radio, makes you realized that someone else enjoys what you do.  The person behind the control board pushed a button to play your song.
That’s it and when I made “Heart Wide Open” record, I thought as an artist you hope people love it and they will want to play it.  Getting it played on Bluegrass Junction is a huge deal.  That’s where you want it to be played.  When I handed it to Kyle Cantrell, I told him that I really hoped he enjoyed this and hoped he could find something to play.  You keep your fingers crossed hoping that he will like something on it.  Come to find out he did and like I said, it makes you feel like you’re doing something right.

For bluegrass musicians, it is so hard to even get airplay unless it is on a special show on a country station, the Sirius XM Bluegrass Station, or WSM.
It’s a hard business anyway and you’re right – it’s tough to get airplay.  If you can get it with Kyle Cantrell, I believe you’re doing something right.

Was anyone else in your family musically inclined? Did they sing or perform?
On my grandmother’s side, they are very musical.  There were a lot of bluegrass musicians and country musicians on that side.  As far as my immediate family, I’ve got a brother and we all love music.  I always say that I can look back on my childhood and there was always music in my home growing up.  Saturdays for my mom would be her day to clean the house.  I can remember she would crank the radio up.  We always had country music playing through the house.  When I was growing up, my dad was always singing to me.  The one particular song he would sing to me was the “Wabash Cannonball.”  Music was a huge part of my life so I really feel like it stayed with me all of these years.  It grew into a huge love of mine.

With both you and Ralph Stanley II being musicians and now parents, how have you been able to keep balance being a parent and a musician?
It’s been tough, but I feel like our lifestyle is totally different to lots of people.  When I Ralph and I first got married, obviously he was traveling first all the time.  He was gone a lot, so I stayed home.  I chose to be a mom at the time and I put my music on the back burner.  I wanted to raise the kids and be here as much as possible.  Now that my daughter is 17, she will be 18 in June, and our son is 13, I felt like, ‘you know what, it’s time for me to kind of step back into it and see what I can do.’  We homeschool the kids so that is really helpful.  They did public school for a good while until they got older.  We now homeschool that allows him to be gone and me to be gone.  It really works out that way.

What are some upcoming plans for the Dr. Ralph Stanley Hills of Home Bluegrass Festival this year?
The festival is one that has been around for many years and Dr. Ralph handed it down to his son, Ralph II.  It is the 49th year of doing the festival in McClure, VA and we want to invite everyone out to it.  It’s a historical place and a historical event.  It’s a great time for everybody that comes here.  We have people that come from Japan, Italy, from all over the world.  They always the remark that this is the most beautiful place that we’ve ever been to.  Even though it is a bit of a hike to get to it, once you get there, it’s a gorgeous place.  For more information, be sure to check out http://drralphstanleyfestival.com/.

Finally, have you received any particular advice from another entertainer that you have valued?
I have to say that my husband, Ralph II, has given me some of the best advice I could have ever received for free.  I think there are times as a married couple that you don’t want to listen to your partner sometimes.  You know how that goes.  I have learned he knows what he’s talking about.  He’s been around the block a time or two.  He’s always told me to listen to the fans.  Do what’s in your heart and do the kind of music that you feel can be relatable to the fans.  If you’re not being authentic, they can tell it.  That has really rung true.  If you’re trying to get up there and sing something that you can’t relate to or they can’t relate to, they will spot it first.  I try to be as authentic and relatable as I possibly can.  I feel like that when I do a record, especially with this new record, I feel like every song tells a story about my life.  Especially with “Never Say Never” – it is something that rings so true with my life.  We’ve always heard that saying, never say never, and like I was saying, when I was raising the kids I thought that I would never do music again.  I really did.  I thought it is over and I was really down and out about it to be honest.  I had chosen that and made that decision to put the kids first.  I’ve learned that you most definitely never say never because the time arose when I had the opportunity to do a record.  So that’s why you never say never in life.

Be sure to get the chance to listen to Kristi Stanley and Running Blind at a bluegrass music festival near you.  Her complete schedule can be found at www.krististanley.com.  Also, be sure to grab a copy of her album, “Heart Wide Open,” available on her website and at shows.  It is one that perfectly showcases Kristi’s vocal capabilities and is full of beautiful sounds of east Kentucky.

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