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A rainy night with Ralph Stanley

By Frank Roberts

I was thinking recently about bluegrass great Ralph Stanley, who died on June 23.

I met him once when he was entertaining on the Norfolk waterfront. Mid-concert, the rains came, and they came hard.

I was reviewing the show for The Virginian-Pilot — struggling as both myself and my notebook were getting soaked. I was next to the bandstand, and he noticed me. He invited my wife, me and two friends to come up, get dry and write in comparative comfort. The act of kindness made me even more of a Ralph Stanley enthusiast.

From the world of coincidence, I learned that an award-winning bluegrass singer, Donna Ulisse, married his cousin, Rick Stanley. I knew Donna from covering her many performances in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area. She was an opening act for many visiting stars. She and her band alternated with Kathy Sacra and her band, and with Barbara Jean and the Band Of Gold.

In those days, all three ladies were straight-ahead country. Donna’s bluegrass tie-in came later. As she put it, “I married into it.”

Eventually, Donna and Kathy decided a move to Nashville would be a good idea. Donna met and wed Ralph’s cousin, Rick, and Kathy became head of the Hadley Music Group, which handles Donna’s work, plus the efforts of others.

So, everyone is happy and successful. Donna’s new CD, “When I Look Back” features, among others, her husband and the late Ralph S., who sang at the Rick Stanley-Donna Ulisse wedding.

Barbara Jean, the third party in this triumvirate, stayed put in North Carolina (her friends were from Virginia, just across the border). She retired from showbiz, but her teen daughter is picking up the cudgels.

I should mention BJ’s ex, “Muskrat” Reames, who still performs in Northeastern North Carolina. He is an excellent steel guitarist.

Barbara Jean lives about seven miles from my humble abode in Hertford, N.C. The three ladies are beautiful and brainy.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at froberts73@embarqmail.com.