In a jumbled-up world where musicians often try genre crossovers with blurred lines of what is or isn’t bluegrass music, it’s good to know you can still pick up a copy of the latest Clinch Mountain Boys record and get a good dose of mountain heartache. The first release from Ralph II and the Clinch Mountain Boys is a fine one, especially for listeners who love the extra twang of a raised head five string banjo, a Shuffler-style guitar solo, and a lonesome old song.
Simply titled Ralph Stanley II and the Clinch Mountain Boys, the new record has the potential of being one of the best traditional bluegrass records of the year. There are a couple of older Stanley songs here, befitting Ralph II’s taking over the Clinch Mountain Boys name last year. Opening track Henry Brown was recorded by the elder Stanley in his 1970s heyday; Ralph II copies the original style nicely, right down to the classic guitar and fiddle, courtesy of Stanley and John Rigsby. It’s a good upbeat number, with Alex Leach’s banjo keeping things at a rollicking pace throughout. Mary, Merry Christmas comes from Carter Stanley. According to the spoken intro to the song, it was the last song Carter wrote before passing away on December 1st, 1966, which is made especially lonesome by the last verse: “It’s now late November, soon Santa will come. But I won’t be here to see the tree…” The group has given it a simple, stripped-down arrangement, allowing the lyrics – and their poignancy – to stand out.
One of the album’s highlights is Life to Go, a George Jones song with a neat classic country groove, largely thanks to Leach’s lead guitar. It’s a well-written prison song in the popular vein of a man looking back and realizing the crime he committed wasn’t quite worth it. The mandolin triplet in the second break is a bit questionable, though I’ll trust Rigsby’s judgement – he’s one of the best (and most underrated) sidemen in the business. Another strong track is No More the Moon Shines On Lorena, an obscure Carter Family number about a slave longing for his lost love. I’ve heard the group do this one a few times live, and it’s definitely one of their best as a group – strong harmonies (especially from Rigsby), a smooth lead from Stanley, and backing banjo and fiddle that work perfectly together.
The album’s best song, however, is hands down Raining in My Heart, an original from Stanley, Leach, and Joe Rose. Stanley has taken on a more traditional sound in recent years, drawing from his father and uncle, but this has more of a country flair, similar to his This One is Two album from several years back. Leach sets the tone with a solid guitar intro, and the lead vocals are among Stanley’s best. The lone instrumental, Cannonball Blues, is also enjoyable, with awesome lead guitar from Stanley. It’s refreshing to hear a crosspicked instrumental in a world where most guitar players tend to gravitate more toward a Tony Rice style. Goin’ Round This World (also from Stanley, Leach, and Rose) is straight-up Stanley. Leach throws in a few Ralph Stanley banjo licks, while Rigsby is more than a little inspired by Curly Ray Cline. It has a good chugging melody, with a solid bass line from Noah Brown, to accompany the story of a man celebrating getting off a section gang.
It would be remiss of me to not mention the album art, skillfully put together by Anthony Ladd. The cover features the band on the old stage at the Hills of Home festival, while other photos show Ralph II standing by his father’s grave and in the doorway of a vine-covered building. It perfectly captures the passing of the Stanley legacy from father to son, especially when paired with the fine songs here. It should definitely be a contender for Best Graphic Design at next year’s IBMA awards.
Many bluegrass albums today feature a bevy of special guests, and many times, regular touring bands don’t even accompany the lead singer on recordings. While that may lead to smoother, more technically proficient albums, it takes something away from seeing that band live. A few years back, I requested a hit song from a band that was popular at the time, and was told they didn’t play it live because it would never sound as good as it did on the record. That’s something you’ll never hear from Ralph Stanley II. There are four musicians here, and it’s the same lineup that you’ll see on stage. While there may be a few rough edges here and there, they sing and play their hearts out. Fans of the Stanley style should find much to enjoy. I’m definitely a fan; long live Ralph II and the Clinch Mountain Boys.
For more information on Ralph II and the Boys, visit www.ralph2.com. Their new album is available from a variety of online music retailers.