Bluegrass music icon Ralph Stanley is quick to share both what he’s done right and what he’s done wrong.
One thing he did wrong was trade away his favorite banjo, a 1923 Gibson Mastertone archtop. The lesson there is never to make a decision based on your head if it conflicts with your heart.
A great decision Stanley made was hiring two teenagers, Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley, even though he already had a full band.
Once after Stanley’s band ran late for a gig, the boys, barely 15 years old, were brought onstage to keep the crowd warm. They so mesmerized everyone that Stanley found ways to incorporate them into his shows until they graduated from high school and joined the band full time.
The lesson here is not to let mistakes cloud your eyes to the opportunities they present.
One last example, maybe Stanley’s best professional decision, was aided and abetted by the great music producer T Bone Burnett, who asked Stanley to help him with a movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Stanley was to record an old-timey version of “O Death” just the way Burnett had in mind, and he did. But then the shy musician from southwestern Virginia did something extremely uncharacteristic.
“Sometimes you have to speak up or you lose your chance,” recalls Stanley, who was born in 1927 and wanted to take the song even further back in time.
He asked Burnett if he could sing it without accompaniment in the old Primitive Baptist style. Burnett said yes, and the recording won a Grammy.
“That’s what I admire about T Bone,” Stanley says. “He ain’t like a lot of record producers. They already have their minds made up about everything before they go into the studio. They’re businessmen first and producers second. T Bone was a musician first. For T Bone, a recording studio isn’t a factory, it’s a room where you make music.”
Bottom line: Speak up, take chances … and give chances.
— Adapted from Man of Constant Sorrow, Ralph Stanley with Eddie Dean, Gotham Books.
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