Peter Rowan has paid his dues, spending more than 50 years in and around bluegrass, sharing the stage with everyone from Bill Monroe and Jerry Garcia. Now, he’s paying tribute.
His new CD on Rebel Records is called Carter Stanley’s Eyes. But the title cut isn’t the only nod to the man many consider the best lead singer in bluegrass. Cut after cut, including two written by Carter, two written by his brother Ralph, and one by Monroe, the songs conjure up memories of the artist who left us far too soon, in 1966.
But the title cut, one of three songs on the CD written by Rowan, seals the deal. The Light in Carter Stanley’s Eyes recounts the day in 1965 when Monroe and Rowan — a member of the Blue Grass Boys who wasn’t yet old enough to vote — visited Carter near the end of his tragically shortened life.
The song includes a spoken part, in which Rowan recalls Monroe telling Stanley that he had been one of his favorite Blue Grass Boys, and his favorite lead singer. It also recounts Stanley asking Rowan if he was “going to stick with it,” which Rowan answered affirmatively. Given that more than half a century has passed between the question and this new project, Rowan clearly kept his end of the bargain.
The song, with it’s built-in oral history of an important moment in bluegrass history, will help make Carter Stanley relevant to new generations of pickers. And it should add momentum to the push to add Carter and Ralph to the Country Music Hall of Fame, an oversight that frankly should have been corrected long ago.
I’ll probably lose some of you here, but I happen to believe that The Stanley Brothers – not Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys or Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs – were the quintessential first-generation bluegrass band. And that view is largely informed by Carter’s soulful vocals.
With Carter gone, there are two lead vocalists that sing persuasively in his style, in my subjective view. One is Dudley Connell of the Seldom Scene. Put a guitar in his hand offstage and he’s likely to play and sing a Stanley Brothers number. Onstage, even on songs outside the Stanleys’ catalog, it’s easy to hear Carter’s influence.
The other – no surprise – is Rowan. Throughout the 14 songs, you can close your eyes at almost any point and hear Carter’s ghost. It’s especially true on Drumbeats on the Watchtower, a Rowan-penned song that Ralph Stanley recorded in the late 1980s, Carter’s Too Late to Cry and the heartbreaking The True and Trembling Brakeman, now in the public domain.
But Rowan isn’t a copycat. The arrangements and top-notch musicianship make this collection a bluegrass traditionalist’s treasure that is at the same time fresh and innovative to new generations of listeners. Those picking and singing with Rowan include Blaine Sprouse on fiddle, Tim O’Brien on guitar and harmonies, Don Rigsby and Chris Henry on mandolin and vocals, and Jack Lawrence on lead guitar. It’s a wonderful mix of Stanley acolytes old and new.
Carter Stanley isn’t with us, but his music is. This new project from an old warhorse guarantees that Carter’s dripping-with-lonely style will stay with us for years to come.