Stanley’s Grammy-winning work on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” sold an unexpected 6 million copies. Mainstream music fans have embraced Stanley and the impossibly sad laments that he and his late brother Carter first debuted on Bristol, Va., radio station, WCYB almost 60 years ago. With and without his brother, Stratton, the Va., native has crafted more than 150 albums for nearly a dozen different labels. Good luck finding a bad one.
This legendary performer and his Clinch Mountain Boys will perform live at the Carpenter Center on Dec. 12 and, folks, that’s an event even if he doesn’t include “Old Richmond Jail” in the set list. If you loved the “O Brother” CD and want to hear more of the Stanley “high lonesome” sound, here are some undeniable career highlights from the elder statesman of Virginia mountain music.
“The Stanley Brothers: The Complete Columbia Recordings” (Columbia-Legacy)
If Bill Monroe wrote the Magna Carta, then you can consider this collection of early Stanley Brothers the Bluegrass Bill of Rights. Among the 22 historic cuts: their haunting prototype of “I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow,” which makes the contemporary “O Brother” version (based in part on the Stanleys’ arrangement) sound like a peppy radio jingle.
“The Stanley Brothers: The Complete Mercury Recordings” (Mercury-Nashville)
This two-CD set surveys the Brothers’ vital ’50s work, when they were rewriting the rules of mountain hoedown and downhome gospel. Pure Stanleys — even the comedy cuts and breakdowns tug at the heartstrings.
“The Stanley Brothers: Ridin’ the Midnight Train - 1958-61” (Westside)
When Carter Stanley’s plaintive lead vocal merged with his brother’s raw tenor harmony, the effects could be devastating. Just listen to “Rank Strangers,” one of the duo’s most popular creations, arguably the most terrifying alienation anthem this side of punk rock. During this period, the Stanleys were having trouble keeping their backing band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, solvent. This collection proves their music never suffered.
“Songs My Mother Taught Me” (Freeland)
“Bound to Ride” (Rebel)
After Carter Stanley’s passing in 1966, Ralph proceeded to inject the Clinch Mountain sound with vital new blood like the teenaged Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley. “Songs” is a tribute to Ralph’s beloved ma, who originally taught him “clawhammer”-style banjo. “Ride” is an awesome assortment that documents the revamped early ’70s Clinch Mountain Boys; it features some of Skaggs’ finest work as an instrumentalist. If these hook you — and they will — proceed immediately to the “1971-1973” 4-CD box set for a more complete picture of Stanley’s transitional period as bandleader.
“Saturday Night & Sunday Morning” (Freeland)
This 1992 two-CD set contains a winning mixture of contemporary material (Dwight Yoakam’s “A Miner’s Prayer”), Stanley standards (“Rank Strangers,” “The Fields Have Turned Brown”) and collaborations for the ages (a historic duet with Bill Monroe that doesn’t disappoint). Many fans point to this as his best work outside of the Stanley Brothers.
“Clinch Mountain Country” (Rebel)
“Clinch Mountain Sweethearts” (Rebel)
The bluegrass equivalents of Frank Sinatra’s Duets CDs, these pair our hero’s weathered tonsils with a wide range of admiring fellow singers. “Country” offers up excellent duets with George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill and Bob Dylan (who called his involvement “the highlight of my career”). “Sweethearts” exclusively features Ralph with the ladies — everyone from Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams and Joan Baez (!) to Gillian Welch and Stanley’s sweet-voiced granddaughter, Kristi. Grab bags, yes, but they work.
“Ralph Stanley” (DMZ-Sony)
Produced by T-Bone Burnett, who helmed Ralph’s Grammy-winning acapella rendition of Dock Boggs’ “O Death,” this may be the disc to shelf-grab if one craves more of that “O Brother” vibe. The centerpiece is a chilling version of a lesser-known Boggs song, “False Hearted Lover’s Blues.” S
Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys play the Carpenter Center on Dec. 12 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $28.50-$30.50 and can be purchased at ticketmaster.com or by calling 262-8100.
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