This one doesn’t get a rating. It’s essential, to use a word that is thrown around quite a bit. If you already own some Stanley Brothers, you can certainly live and breathe without this release, but your life would be better with it. If you needed a place to start within bluegrass, this would be an excellent choice. If you’re a budding musicologist, you would be remiss to pass over this release, which helps to chronicle the birth of a genre. But beyond being Important, this release is that rare find in the universe of early (non-classical) recordings, in that it is undeniably listenable through-and-through. From Robert Johnson to the Carter Family to Blind Willie Johnson, compilations of this kind have relied on the patience of the listener to help provide the immense payoff of the music. In order to provide needed historical accuracy and completeness, tracks are sometimes repeated, poor quality 78s are worked to the best of the technician’s ability, and lesser quality songs are included to present a complete picture. This is not a judgment at all; it is merely a small fact. The ear can certainly be trained to find the song behind the hiss, or to take into account the lives of past generations to provide a fuller picture, and therefore appreciation, of these recordings. Anyone serious about music can actually find these roadblocks to be part of the appeal. To feel the beginnings of a music world being created is incredibly gratifying, despite any flaws, inherent or otherwise.
That said, the Stanley Brothers’ Earliest Recordings: The Complete Rich-R-Tone 78s (1947-1952) is a rare anomaly in early recordings. In 14 songs and 35 minutes, this release is a joy of a CD, in and of itself. Sure, there’s some hiss involved and a couple of songs are slight, but it plays as a finished piece of art. It is assured and interesting, both playful and mournful. It speaks of a rich aural history lesson while remaining strongly tied to humanity in general. Christopher King’s remastering is exceptional and warm. Where Earliest Recordings pulls through the most, though, is in the feeling (not the reality) that this was recorded as an album. It does not sound like single tracks recorded over a time period of five years. It sounds like a vision realized.
The themes are typical, but no less haunting for that. There’s infidelity, murder, early deaths, and religion. The world often sounds ominous and love is something that can turn to bloodshed in a moment’s time. Listening to this collection there is the feeling that the goth scene got it wrong (relying too much on melodrama instead of the dark and the light). Marry dark lyrics with sprightly banjo and guitar playing, add voices that sound like hungover cherubs, and then try to top the “unsettling” factor. Yet, there are moments of respite that sound like the soundtrack to an amazing dream (that turns into a nightmare at the end, but never mind that). “Little Birdie” could be a children’s song, in all of its simple earnestness. “The Girl Behind the Bar” is an upbeat closer, despite the fact that a woman gets stabbed in the back. Most impressive is “Death is Only a Dream”. It’s the type of song that is spooky, gorgeous, and moving from the very first listen, and then only becomes more so until by the tenth listen you’re thinking it could possibly be one of the best songs you’ve ever heard.
Sure, this CD could be assigned a 10 rating. But quibbles over the perfection of it would be warranted. The sound is understandably lacking on some tracks, it is definitely “genre” music, meaning there are those who will dislike it simply because it is bluegrass, and it could certainly be considered anachronistic. All that aside, putting this collection of Carter and Ralph Stanley gems beyond a rating is the most honest thing to do. Earliest Recordings goes beyond a history lesson and delves into the soul. That has nothing to do with a rating. Quite simply, it stands the test of time. What could be better than that, flaws and all?