Written by Fantasma el Rey
Handed down from the Clinch Mountains, via Time Life, comes the first ever comprehensive box set chronicling the entire career of bluegrass legends The Stanley Brothers. The Definitive Collection (1947-1966) will be released just in time to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Stanley’s first studio recording and surviving brother Ralph’s 80th birthday. The set is to have rare, vintage photos from the ‘40s and ‘50s as well as a biographical essay and an introduction by reigning bluegrass hero/king Ricky Skaggs. All this and three CDs of classic music from the hills of the heart.
“Best of” Stanley Brothers CDs do exist, yet are bound to specific labels that the brothers, Carter and Ralph, recorded for. This collection is the only one to pull from everything that the brothers and their band, The Clinch Mountain Boys, have put down on tape. The untimely death of Carter in 1966 was the only reason that these boys stopped recordings. Some of the tracks are taken from radio shows that the brothers hosted and played on; one such tune even features bluegrass’ founding father Bill Monroe. Also included are five songs which see the “light of disc” for the first time. Fans everywhere will no doubt relish these newly unearthed treasures.
Carter’s strong baritone voice is complemented by Ralph’s high lonesome tenor on song topics that range from love, good times, God, and most prominent: misery and death. Songs of country sorrow abound and these dark classics don’t disappoint. Tracks like “Little Glass Of Wine” and “The Fields Have Turned Brown” have simple lyrics that speak volumes in terms of telling stories of loss in three minutes, while the beautiful sound of hill music drives the scene home.
The harmony shines through especially bright on the heavenly inspired “Get Down On Your Knees And Prey” and a tune I truly dig, “Beautiful Star Of Bethlehem.” All the while acoustic guitars sway, fiddles cry, banjos fly, and the doghouse bass plunks along filling out the sound. On some tunes you can almost hear the wonderful howl of a moonshine jug.
This box isn’t all gloom. The Stanleys show that they can jump with the best of then as well. Fast-paced, toe-tapping, dance-floor fillers are a staple of the Stanley sound to boot. “This Old Home,” “I Just Got Wise,” and “Gonna Paint The Town” are perfect examples of this up-tempo drive. The instrumental numbers which include “Hard Times,” and “Black Mountain Blues” showcase not only the talent of the Stanleys but the ability of the Clinch Mountain Boys to kick it up and soar above the hill tops.
The track that highlights it all is “Orange Blossom,” the drivin’ train song where the furious banjo and fiddles set the stereo to smoking. This hillbilly foot-stamper is sure to set the woods on fire and be played over and over again. The band gives an excellent feel of movement here, as well as on “Train 45,” which only adds to their ability to get you moving.
All the songs that the public has come to love by The Stanley Brothers take their place along side the more obscure tunes. “I’m A Man Of Constant Sorrow,” “Oh Death,” “Rank Stranger,” “Angel Band,” “How Mountain Girls Can Love” and a nifty cover of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” are just the tip of the corn stalk. Yes, and let me not forget “How Far To Little Rock,” which is a novelty tune ala Hee-Haw’s pickin’ and grinnin’. A very “hill-arious” look into the lighter side of country life and humor.
The five songs unveiled for this box are true gems which include a live recording captured in 1962 of “Tell Me Why My Daddy Don’t Come Home,” a song that saw life on the Stanleys first ever performance. On “Sugar Coated Love” Carter gets a chance to sing along side his hero Bill Monroe. Two gospel numbers, “Hide Ye In The Blood” and “Dust On The Bible,” continue to show the importance of religion and Christianity on bluegrass music.
Since the 1960s country and bluegrass artists have looked upon the Stanleys with awe, citing them as an inspiration and turning to their music for recording material. Being featured on the soundtrack to the hit film O Brother, Where Are Thou? has led to yet another resurgent wave, one that Ralph Stanley is thankfully still able to ride. Through the years he has kept The Clinch Mountain Boys alive by featuring many talented musicians in their lineup, which now includes his son and grandson. This collection is just about all you need for the Stanley Brothers unless of course you’re a nut like me and have to find more. This is the best place to start and end for most, as this set covers the entire career from these cornerstones of that ol’ time bluegrass sound.