Ah me, ah my, since pissing off the magnificent PineCastle and Rural Rythyms labels, I've been kinda hurtin' for outstanding bluegrass. Superb units like The Grascals, The Roys, and others have taken up some of the slack, but there's still an empty slice in my quarrelsome critic's heart (that's part of what got me in Dutch) that needs them sweet Appalachian refrains and good ol' Jesus songs (even though I'm a devout atheist, which is the other thang that upset matters), and, man o man, does Ralph Stanley and his ensemble ever go a hell of a long ways to assuaging that void.
Born in 1927, and now 87 years old (a wry observation from Buddy Miller: "He's 87 years old, but he's always sounded 87 years old!"), a legend in his genre, as respected, fidelitous, and inventive as Bill Emerson and Flatts & Scruggs, Stanley has released many albums, and his latest, Man of Constant Sorrow, is a re-recorded reprise of the gent's best…with a stellar cast of sessioneers, including Robert Plant, the guy who's always in search of 'the blue note', well covered here in Two Coats in duet with Ralph in one of the most spiritually and poetically soulful and emotionally intense songs of the latter's repertoire.
Up to the point of an early-years birthday in Virginia, Ralph loved pigs and banjos. His mother approached him as to a gift and said she had $5 to spend but pigs and banjos cost $5 each, which did he want? He chose the banjo, and American music has been all the better for it since. His playing became so popular among officers when he was in the Army that he was granted his own private small room so as to more easily be on call. His superiors tried to convince him to stay on after WWII, that's how much they hung on his every note, but Ralph chose to leave and start playing with brother Carter, forming The Stanley Bros.
My favorite song of this very righteous collection? Pig in a Pen with Gillian Welch. Why? Because it's quintessential, an expositorily raw and open but happy ditty perfectly embodying the virtues of the style, the heart of this American modus. Second favorite? Short Life of Trouble. Same reason, and it's an old old song. Then there's Ralph and Wendy Smith's touching paean to his beloved and much missed brother, Carter, the guy who wrote the cut this CD was named for (which Dylan loved and covered years ago but who puzzlingly does not appear here, though Elvis Costello, Rickey Skaggs, Jim Lauderdale, and many others do), the man with whom he toured for many years but who passed at the far too young age of 41.
There's an interesting patronage-of-the arts gig happening here as well, in the middle of the many many hassles in the music biz: the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain digs Ralph's work and undertook to release the CD physically, distributing it in their franchises (and thru CrackerBarrel.com), and, frankly, much as I've had good experiences with Amazon, the alternative in grabbing the disc, I prefer being able to get merch in stores for both the immediacy (I'm an impatient kinda guy) and the no-hassle position in those rare occasions of mismanufacture-and-return (that's why I shop Target: their return policy is as xlnt as the old Sears-Roebuck's). This is a unique wrinkle in the troubled and struggling arts paradigm, and I'll be interested in seeing what eventuates.
Also, dear reader, if you decide to go the Amazon route, make sure, when you order the disc, that you don't mix this one up with an earlier release of the same name (Man of Constant Sorrow) recorded under the 'Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys' aggregate—not that I'd want to warn you away from the 2001 release, not at all, but the two discs are quite different. Get this one first, and I'm convinced you'll be picking up the other one later. Things work out…and you need, trust me, what both offer.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
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