Ralph Stanley & Friends
Man of Constant Sorrow
Perhaps the uninitiated may have “discovered” Ralph Stanley through his participation in the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, For those who have spent their lives appreciating the man and his music, Ralph Stanley is a certified living legend — not to mention one of the last remaining links to that first generation of bluegrass musicians who blazed the trail for newgrassers and traditionalists alike. Even though he threatened retirement not long ago, the 87-year-old singer is back with a new duets album, available through Cracker Barrel stores.
Man of Constant Sorrow digs through the back catalog of The Stanley Brothers, making it as much a tribute to the late Carter Stanley as it is to Ralph. Carter’s “Sweethearts in Heaven” and “White Dove” are lovingly performed with Ricky Skaggs and Lee Ann Womack, respectively. The special guests include a few bluegrass acts, like Del McCoury and Old Crow Medicine Show (who nearly steal the show with “Short Life of Trouble”), but most of the singers are from the country and Americana world. Fittingly, the guests who are most used to the bluegrass world fare the best. Josh Turner and Dierks Bentley in particular are standouts with “We Shall Rise” and “I Only Exist.” Robert Plant and Elvis Costello, now Americana singers after a lifetime of rock music, don’t blend with the genre as well.
The one unfortunate aspect of the album is that you don’t always hear much of Stanley on the album. Most of the time, he pops up to harmonize on the chorus, but only about half of the songs could properly be called duets. This is not a knock on producers Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller, who are reverential as possible. The sad fact is that Stanley, after 70 years in the music business, just doesn’t have the vocal power to keep up with the big voices of Bentley or McCoury. When he’s featured on songs like “Rank Stranger” (with his grandson Nathan) or “I Am the Man Thomas” (with Miller and Lauderdale), he still can rise to the occasion, but his voice is a shadow of what it used to be.
Just when you think that Stanley has given absolutely all he had to the music, there are the last two songs on the album. The title track closes out the album, and Stanley delivers once again on a song he must have sung thousands of times before. The stunner, however, is “Hills of Home,” a recitation that Stanley co-wrote as a letter to Carter. What Johnny Cash did with “Hurt” and Glen Campbell did with “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” Stanley does with “Hills of Home.” Even the hardest hearts may crack at least a little as Stanley tells his brother about traveling the same roads today that they traveled as The Stanley Brothers way back when. Frail voice and all, Stanley provides one of the year’s most powerful musical moments.
I like this album. It’s fun to hear people who don’t typically sing bluegrass give it a try. I noticed that Ralph Staneley isn’t front and center on most of these tracks too, but it always struck me that he’d often give Jim Lauderdale top billing on their duet albums, even when he was in stronger voice. So, I’m wondering if it’s his preference to harmonize on collaborative projects when given a chance?