november 2008

Ralph Stanley
Rebel Records

Once spurned as primitive and staid by progressive bluegrass pickers, and even shelved by Ralph Stanley himself during the Stanley Brothers' heyday in favor of a clear, ringing blend of old and new (read Scruggs-style) approaches, clawhammer banjo picking now coexists comfortably with the progressive school in the bluegrass mainstream, thanks in no small measure to Ralph Stanley himself. Following the death of his brother Carter, Stanley redefined himself as a solo artist, returning to the simplicity and straightforwardness of the old-time mountain music of his raising, singing in the shape note manner of his Primitive Baptist Church congregation and featuring his clawhammer style banjo on record and in concert. No one would begrudge this towering artist and gracious man the long-deserved widespread recognition he received in the wake of his stunning a cappella reading of "O Death" on the O Brother Where Are Thou soundtrack, but the real Ralph Stanley was a far cry from the gloom and doom merchant he seemed to be on that project and on two subsequent T Bone Burnett-produced solo albums. The Ralph Stanley known to his most ardent fans embraced life and celebrated it in song-think of his great, uplifting duet album with Jim Lauderdale, I Feel Like Singing Today, for instance. This clawhammer collection, encompassing 15 tracks released on albums between 1971 and 2001, and five previously unissued cuts of more recent vintage (1996-2001), finds a lively, unbridled Stanley tearing through a batch of mostly traditional numbers with various lineups of Clinch Mountain Boys getting their two cents' worth in as well. For those unfamiliar with the relentless drive of clawhammer picking, here's a crash course in it as taught by the master; for those well acquainted with the technique, prepare to be struck dumb by the virtuosity Stanley and his bandmates exhibit at every turn. Stanley has jaw dropping moments in nearly every song, but he makes a few of these extra special by virtue of the emotion he injects into his picking-listen to him roar through the first song his expert banjo player mother taught her 11-year-old son Ralph, "Shout Little Lulie," and you'll feel the love coming through with each note; check out the conviction he brings to his harmony tenor vocal in support of Charlie Sizemore's heartfelt lead on the strutting 1982 Stanley original, "Pretty Girls, City Lights"; luxuriate in the warm memories Stanley renders so vividly in his thumping 2001 treatment of "Dixieland (My Old Home Town)." You could pretty much single out each tune here for similar kudos-whether it's Stanley himself or one of his musicians, someone always grabs your attention. That said, it's important not to overlook the spotlight moments provided by the Clinch Mountain Boys throughout, whether it be the breathtaking fiddle work of Curly Ray Cline and James Price; John Rigbsy's spirited, sprinting mandolin solo in "Cripple Creek"; Ralph Stanley II's rich, bluesy lead vocal on Donnie Joe Mullins's "I've Got a Mule To Ride"; or Junior Blankenship's fleet fingered guitar soloing on the breathtaking "Cuttin' the Cornbread." Closing on a high note, Stanley and company make a mad dash for the hills in the traditional barnburner "Old Time Pickin'," from 1971's Something Old-Something New album, fueled by the spitfire soloing from Ricky Skaggs on mandolin, Keith Whitley on lead guitar, Cline on fiddle and Stanley himself on banjoline, all of it adding up to an energizing outpouring of positive, life affirming energy, something quite apart from the virtuosity run rampant on the track. It's the essence of the man, pure and simple.—David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024