Almost every fan of bluegrass music would agree that Ralph Stanley is a living legend. Going on seven decades in the music business, and one of the few ‘first generation’ bluegrass musicians still performing, Stanley has influenced countless other musicians in numerous genres. As such, several artists have released tributes to him over the years, honoring his greatest hits and most famous tunes. With his new album Doctor’s Orders, Don Rigsby is the latest to pay homage to Stanley, and he does so in fine style.
For this album, Rigsby has dug deep into Stanley’s catalog, sticking with tunes that, for the most part, have seldom been recorded by other artists. Stanley himself played a large role in the song selection, choosing the final track listing from a preliminary list made by Rigsby. This careful attention to song selection is echoed in the arrangements of the songs themselves, which are strongly traditional and stick closely to the original cuts, with Ron Stewart (fiddle) and Barry Bales (bass) even incorporating influences from longtime Clinch Mountain Boys Curly Ray Cline and Jack Cooke.
Rigsby definitely knows his way around these old tunes, and does an excellent job interpreting them. Six More Miles, a lonesome Hank Williams tune about a man traveling to his wife’s burial, is an excellent example of how closely Rigsby and his fellow musicians have listened to and learned from Stanley’s style – particularly Steve Sparkman’s banjo playing. Brand New Tennessee Waltz is a smooth and heartfelt, with nice twin fiddles from Stewart and Matt Hooper, while Sinner Man is an excellent a cappella gospel piece with Midnight Call members Clyde Marshall and Lloyd Herring joining Rigsby for three-part harmony.
A Ralph Stanley tribute album would not be complete without Little Maggie, and Rigsby offers an enjoyable version here. Fans will no doubt like to “listen to that old banjo ring.” While Stanley doesn’t join in on this signature tune, he does lend tenor vocals to Home in the Mountains, and shares lead vocals on The Daughter of Geronimo, an intriguing star-crossed lovers story. Stanley’s clawhammer banjo playing is featured on the album’s closing track, Traveling the Highway Home, an uptempo gospel number which originally featured Keith Whitley on lead vocals.
A few former Clinch Mountain Boys also join in on a few pieces. Charlie Sizemore provides lead vocals on the mournful Walking Up This Hill on Decoration Day, and shares lead on the upbeat, fun Tennessee Truck Driving Man, while Larry Sparks lends his unmistakable vocals and guitar playing to the classic, I Only Exist, one of the album’s standout tracks. Stanley’s current lead guitarist, James Alan Shelton, takes care of most of the album’s guitar work, while Steve Sparkman provides Stanley-style banjo playing throughout.
On Doctor’s Orders, Rigsby and crew have certainly mastered the Stanley sound. Fans of Stanley’s traditional mountain music who pick up a copy of this album are certainly in for a treat.
The album can be purchased from a variety of online music retailers.