It would be possible for this collection not to work, but it would take a concerted effort of malicious incompetence to make it happen. Alongside Bill Monroe, or Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, there’s probably no more celebrated act in the history of bluegrass than the Stanley Brothers. The Complete Mercury Recordings captures Ralph and Carter Stanley at the height of their powers, offering every track they released during their 1953-1958 tenure at Mercury. It’s rock solid from the get-go.
Happily, this release gives that sterling material the treatment it deserves. Comprehensive liner notes, 48 cuts of top-notch bluegrass, and surprisingly fresh and clear sound (especially for fifty-year-old recordings) make The Complete Mercury Recordings exactly what it should be: essential. Pair this collection with 1996’s The Complete Columbia Recordings and you have some of the most important bluegrass ever recorded.
By the time the Stanley Brothers got to Mercury, they were already evolving not only past their straightforward mountain sound, but past their Bill Monroe fixation as well (in 1949, Monroe had left Columbia over the label’s signing of what he considered a copycat act). The brothers’ format was largely the same as before—Carter singing and playing on guitar, with Ralph playing banjo and adding his unearthy high tenor—but they were also finding ways to tweak the traditional bluegrass sound. The duo, while not incredibly prolific, wrote the bulk of their own songs and they knew how to take advantage of Carter’s considerable lead singing skills and Ralph’s mix of lonely tenor and frantic banjo playing.
Their innovations were subtle, but made a significant impact on their sound. One notable example is their cover of Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, which, with Monroe’s tutelage, they patterned after Elvis Presley’s recent version. On their numerous gospel cuts, they expanded the basic palette of voices from their church-informed youth and found new ways to add baritone and tenor harmonies (check out “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” for a breakneck example). Carter also introduced twin fiddles to the band in 1956, making for a fuller and often even more lonesome sound. “The Cry from the Cross” even throws a weird echo on the fiddles for even more haunting effect.
The disc closes on a relatively upbeat note with “Maple on the Hill” and “Little Maggie”, two cuts from the Stanley Brothers’ post-Mercury sessions on Smash. After leaving Mercury, the brothers recorded for a variety of small labels and toured extensively, benefitting from the ‘60s folk boom. By this time, they’d already recorded many of their classics—“Angel Band”, “I’m Lost, I’ll Never Find the Way”, “Daybreak in Dixie”, and others. When Carter died in 1966 at the age of 41, Ralph Stanley began his solo career that recently culminated in the multi-platinum O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and a Grammy for his performance of “Oh Death”.
For good measure, The Complete Mercury Recordings includes four cuts previously unavailable in the U.S. “A Life of Sorrow” is a leisurely-paced and slightly spectral reading of what we typically know now as “Man of Constant Sorrow”. “Will He Wait a Little Longer” is a spry gospel cut, “A Lonesome Night” is a gently loping tale of jealousy fueled by harmonies and dual fiddles, and “Close By” is a textbook example of old-style high lonesome bluegrass. None of them are throwaways and they fit quite comfortably amongst the disc’s other tracks. Overall, there’s not a weak spot to be found on The Complete Mercury Recordings; the recordings are seminal, and they’re presented in a comprehensive and chronological fashion that helps the reader see the Stanley Brothers’ development as a cornerstone of bluegrass.