Rank Stranger enshrined by Library of Congress

The Stanley Brothers during their King Records daysThe Stanley Brothers’ classic 1960 recording of Rank Stranger has been chosen by The Librarian of Congress as one of the culturally-significant audio recordings to be added to their National Recording Registry for preservation. Each year 25 new pieces of audio are added to the archive – some from commercial recordings, others from radio broadcasts or field recordings.

This archive was created in 2000 and now contains 275 audio files, some dating from the late 19th century, though not all are actually housed at the Library of Congress. You can see the complete list, presented in chronological order on the National Recording Preservation Board web site.

Bluegrass fans have cherished both this song and the Stanleys’ recording of it for nearly 50 years. It is still played all over the world by amateur and professional bluegrass bands, and almost always using the arrangement that The Stanley Brothers recorded.

Here is a video of Ralph and Carter performing Rank Stranger on television, with the definitive George Shuffler kickoff. It would appear to be from the early ’60s – maybe our bluegrass historian friends can shed some more more light on that question.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_vtOd_d40oUPDATE 12:40 p.m. –  As I suspected he might, British Bluegrass News editor Richard F. Thompson has some more information about Rank Stranger. From Richard’s update:

Gary Reid, the person to ask about matters relating to the Stanley Brothers, has this comment on hearing the news …………

(It) is among the best-known of their many recordings. It is, to me, perhaps the song that best captures the highly emotive quality of the Stanley Brothers singing. I think a lot of things conspired to make this recording a classic.

First, and foremost, is the singing of the brothers. Carter Stanley’s lead vocals are strong and self-assured, yet full of ache. You believe the sadness in his lyric is painfully real. And on the choruses, Ralph delivers an equally expressive, yet haunting, counterpoint.

Curly Lambert’s mandolin intro, and his work throughout the song, has been cited as his best work on record. And, there’s the quality of the recording itself.

To me, I think this was perhaps one of the best-recorded sessions the duo ever did. The whole session of 12 songs has a wonderful quality. The material has a great presence and is very clear. Although it was recorded in mono, there is a wonderful mix of instruments and voices… there’s just the right amount of back-up when needed, and nothing over rides or detracts from what is being featured.

Lastly, this song was recorded during a relatively stable time in the band’s career. They had a sponsor that provided them with a weekly salary and promoted them on multiple TV stations in the deep south. This was, perhaps, the best time (1960) for the Stanley Brothers. A steady income and a touring circuit that actually allowed them to have some family time conspired to make this one of the happiest times of Carter Stanley’s career. Perhaps this ease is also reflected in the approach to the music they were making then, including Rank Stranger.

Rank Stranger was recorded by the Stanley Brothers in 1960 and used as background material last year in a Barack Obama radio advert featuring Ralph Stanley that ran in Virginia

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.