“I’m always more than happy to chat the virtues of Dr. Ralph Stanley because they’re plentiful,” Don Rigsby assures me. He’s not kidding. We’ve just spent the better part of an hour talking about Stanley and Doctor’s Orders, Rigsby’s new record and musical tribute to him.
A galvanizing meeting with Stanley as a 6-year-old boy set Rigsby on a career path he’s still following today.
“This record’s been 40 years in the making!” he declares. “I’ve always heard it said, ‘Give people their flowers while they’re livin’.’ So this is my bouquet of flowers to Ralph Stanley and my thanks to him for being such a positive and strong influence to me.”
There’s a satisfying retro vibe that never goes off the deep end into throwback territory. Yet while Rigsby’s versions are far from being Stanley soundalikes, they do favor the traditional side of the genre.
“I wanted people to see the well from which I drew all my inspiration. There’s elements of Ralph Stanley in [everything] I do because it’s an integral part of what I am,” Rigsby affirms.
Even the production of the record pays homage to Stanley. Rigsby tried to recreate the timbre of the Stanley Brothers’ 1960 recording of “Little Maggie,” a version that is “perfect in every way,” he contends.
“The timing and the feel of the song, however they mixed it, had the perfect balance of the 1960s treble and reverb and all that stuff,” he explains.
Although Rigsby says he’s under “no delusions” that his version measures up to Stanley’s, he admits to trying his best to recreate that sound — “even down to putting the slap rhythm guitar on it like they had on the original version.”
As honest as the music is on Doctor’s Orders, what really pulls the ears into the album is Rigsby’s voice. He sings like he has nothing up his sleeve, and his delivery betrays his mastery of the lonesome Stanley sound. Remarkably, most of the vocals on the record are scratch tracks.
“Because I knew ‘em so well already,” he points out, “I could have slaved and toiled over ‘em and overdubbed the life out of ‘em, but I decided if it sounds OK, it is OK.”
Similarly, the music was put to tape with the same approach.
“The arrangements were already made!” Rigsby states definitively. “We’d just listen to the original version of the song one time and then go in and cut it.”
It’s not surprising it was all so effortless considering the album is rife with current and former Clinch Mountain Boys.
To whittle Stanley’s prodigious catalog down to 13 songs, Rigsby made a master list of 50 titles he limited to tunes Stanley recorded after his brother Carter’s passing in 1966. He then gave the list to Stanley, who chose the final 12.
“That’s why it’s Doctor’s Orders,” Rigsby explains. “It was his decision about what I should and shouldn’t cut.”
The 13th slot was reserved for “Little Maggie,” the only Stanley Brothers song on the record.
“‘Little Maggie’ was the first song I learned, and my mom kind of insisted that I do it because she remembered me learning it as a little child and doing everything in my power to sing all the moves that Ralph did on it,” Rigsby divulges.
Most of the other songs were culled from the deeper side of Stanley’s catalog, and Rigsby feels they chronicle his own journey as a musician.
“These songs, there’s little stories about each one of them,” he notes.
Case in point, “The Daughter of Geronimo,” a little-known Stanley gem Rigsby “set out on a quest to find” years ago after reading a review of the album it was on in an old issue of Bluegrass Unlimited. He says the first time he heard the song was a “magic moment” in his life. It’s a moment he recreated on Doctor’s Orders by singing the song as a duet with Stanley. Rigsby believes it’s as good as anything he’s done in the last 25 years.
“I think I’ve matured a lot musically, [and] I think the whole record is probably the best thing I’ve ever recorded just because of that,” he surmises. “This one here is more personal I guess than anything I’ve done. … If I never got to make another record and this had to be my last, I’d be content with that.”
As our chat winds down, I ask Rigsby if he wouldn’t mind sharing a story that captures the essence of who Stanley is to him. He recounts a time when he got fired from a band he was in and went to see Stanley play to cheer himself up.
At the show, Stanley brought Rigsby onstage to pick the mandolin and sing “The Angels Are Singing.” After the tune, as Rigsby was walking off stage, Stanley stopped him and announced to the crowd, “Folks that right there is the first time that song’s been sung right since Ricky Skaggs was in my band.”
Rigsby was moved.
“Now, for him to say something like that,” he says. “Really! It made me feel so much better, and it validated what I was doing, you know? Because when someone lets you go, it causes you to question whether you were doing the right thing. I just can’t say enough good about him. … If you had a bad thing to say about him, I’d probably have to take issue with it.”
Nothing wrong with that. The way Rigsby talks about Stanley so reverently is quite touching. But as moving as his words are, they’re not as compelling as what he says in his music. Doctor’s Orders is where Rigsby really chats up those plentiful virtues and lays bare his feelings for Stanley in an affecting, if not timeless, musical valentine.