Ralph Stanley leapt to prominence when people heard his performance of “O Death” in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but he’s not about to rest on his laurels. The 75-year-old Virginian has a weathered voice to go along with all those hard road miles, but that voice has wisdom and soul in it and it needs to be heard, needs to be experienced and felt, needs to be in your player in any and every way possible.
This is a T-Bone Burnett affair, so the Clinch Mountain Boys are nowhere to be heard — Ralph backed by a bluegrass all-star band of sorts, anchored by Norman Blake (NOT the one from Teenage Fanclub, but the guitar wizard), and they have a clean professional sound to complement that ancient thing that comes out of Ralph’s vocal chords. Nine of the songs are traditional ballads, ranging in tone from the opening inspirational “Lift Him Up, That’s All” to the dead-and-buried “Henry Lee,” which goes, in part, “With a little pen-knife held in her hand / She plugged him through and through.” Cool, huh?
We also get a brief but stunning a capella version of “I’ll Remember You in My Prayers,” which I always imagine him singing to his dead brother and longtime musical partner Carter. These old ballads are so classic and unstudied that even Hank Williams’ gospel-tonk “Calling You” sounds way too contemporary. But Ralph closes the disc with one of his own songs, “Great High Mountain,” on which his ancient voice floats freely over a minimal drone-like ambient accompaniment; hell, until the fiddle kicks in, you’d swear you were hearing some Pakistani qawwali wailer or something.
Really very incredibly crucial, unless you hate this stuff, in which case you’re laboring in the fields of ignorance and you deserve what you get.
Ralph Stanley: http://www.ralphstanley.net