For much of the past decade, rumors of the retirement of the great Ralph Stanley have been rampant – some of them coming directly from his organization. But despite the rumors, and the challenges of recording and touring into his eighties, Dr. Ralph has endured and thrived throughout it all.
Today his most recent album, Man Of Constant Sorrow, is released through Cracker Barrel. It’s a collection of Stanley songs performed with a bevy of country and bluegrass luminaries. They are supported by Ralph’s Clinch Mountain Boys, as solid a traditional bluegrass band as one might imagine. The good Doctor actually takes a back seat here for the most part, allowing his guest vocalists to shine on most of the tracks.
But there’s no lack of “Stanley-ness” on any of them. It’s a Ralph Stanley project from start to finish, with the raw energy and unbridled emotion that we’ve come to expect, from the first sessions with his late, lamented brother Carter, through the classic recordings of the 1970s, and on to the many various superstar studio gatherings of more recent vintage.
Ralph is out front on a few numbers, sharing lead singing duties with Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller on I Am The Man, Thomas; with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant on the mountain Gospel ballad, Two Coats; with Old Crow Medicine Show on Short Life of Trouble; in the recitation on Hills of Home with its reminiscences of Carter; and on the title track which has become his signature song since its appearance in the film, O Brother, Where Art Thou. Of these, Two Coats may be the most memorable, with both Stanley and Plant singing their verses and harmony chorus accompanied by a sole lonesome fiddle. While Robert’s harmony choices come from well outside the mountain tradition, they serve as a perfectly mournful complement to Ralph’s ancient tones.
Your appreciation of the bulk of this record will probably owe a lot to your individual fondness for the artists involved. I found country singer Josh Turner’s rendition of We Shall Rise, the opening track, to be as soulful a bluegrass vocal as I have heard in some time. His plaintive, emotive voice and quality of tone across a wide range have long been remarked upon by critics, and it’s put to good use here. Likewise, Lee Ann Womack’s take on perhaps the definitive Stanley Brothers song, The White Dove, is note perfect. Hearing Ralph taking the baritone part was initially a jar to this Stanleyphile listener, but it is performed beautifully with Aubrie Sellers taking the third part.
Nathan Stanley shines on Rank Stranger, another quintessential Stanley Brothers song. His is an honest and pure bluegrass voice, and he takes the verses with Ralph’s familiar tenor line leading the chorus. Brand New Tennessee Waltz was originally recorded by writer Jesse Winchester in 1970, and shortly thereafter covered by Joan Baez… and Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys. Here Del McCoury takes the lead on the verses – jumping to tenor on the choruses with Ralph on lead – on a slower and even more cheerless adaptation that owes more to Winchester’s recording than Ralph’s.
Other strong cuts include a super old timey rendition of Pig In A Pen with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, a straightforward version of I Only Exist with Dierks Bentley, and a duet between Ralph and his former employee Ricky Skaggs on Sweethearts In Heaven.
The key is that all these superstar guests bend their style to Ralph Stanley, perhaps the chief reason this project succeeds so well.
Man Of Constant Sorrow is available now on CD from any Cracker Barrel restaurant, from their online music store, and from popular online digital resellers. It’s a good’n.
We plan to speak with Ralph later this week about this new effort, and his plans for 2015 and beyond. Look for that interview in the next few days.