Ralph Stanley: Cracker Barrel Presents Ralph Stanley: A Man of Constant Sorrow
A "new" CD of Ralph Stanley duets provides an easy metaphor for how music is currently sold.
This CD is only available via purchase at Cracker Barrel, and works as a marketing tool for both Ralph Stanley and for the people who he is singing at. By extension, it provides a useful tool for figuring out where the people who he has guested with, are within the ecosystem of Nashville. Cracker Barrel itself is kind of interesting, because it constructs itself as a perfect history of a pure America -- and that construction is about consumption. Though they sell a number of music CDs (and their sales do count at Soundscan), this music is sold at a general store, before you walk into the restaurant itself. Before you walk into the general store, you walk by rows of rocking chairs. The brand, is about a kind of mindless nostalgia, sitting in a rocking chair, drinking Cheerwine in a glass bottle, listening to music that is 30 or 40 years old. You are not going to hear Charley Patton, but you will also not hear Florida Georgia Line. What becomes appropriate to construct a simulacra of authenticity, becomes a kind of ersatz canon -- the question of canon making may be more interesting than the music itself.
Looking at the website for their music offerings, complicates this slightly. You have the Gaither Brothers, Dailey and Vincent, the Oak Ridge Boys, Steven Curtis Chapman, artists who sold well, were always respected, but were never quite hip. Then, you have people who are in the middle of a major career slump, or who have aged out of country radio, and who make traditional enough music, that they can slide into a de-centralized, de-localized Branson -- see Alabama, or Alan Jackson, or Clint Black. Brad Paisley might be in this category, he seems to be worried about sales, and the only work that you can buy at the Barrel is his last album. There are also a few legends, including Dolly, but one of the many charms of Parton is that she is a complete genius at marketing. She was proto-Branson before Branson, and she knows more about playing the sticks to the slicks (and vice versa) than anyone else working today. Stanley has never really been much of a marketer.
Listening to Josh Turner as the first guest on the song "We Shall Rise", suggests a metonym for this whole project. Turner has an anxiety about his career, and has tried to move to gospel, or faith based work, before he is completely jettisoned. His baritone matches perfectly with Stanley's -- and Stanley adds some gravitas -- he legitimizes the move of Turner to big T traditional aesthetic. It is an aesthetic to work. I wonder if Turner is trying to position himself the same way that Womack did more than a decade ago -- and hearing both Turner and Womack here, there is a real risk that excellent technical skills and respect for material can be terribly boring. Turner isn't there yet, Womack could do with a bit more roughness.
The question of slickness or roughness is not only a question of marketing, though you can see the positioning of people, and the problems of career all over this piece. No matter how much I love Stanley's voice, he is a great American saint, and there is a precision between his aging and his writing, the closer he gets to death, the more appropriate his singing "Oh Death" sounds -- though like the Louvin Brothers, one always got the impression that he was never really that far away. (One a side note -- this was the genius of O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- the language games and urban irony of the Coen Brothers and the rural melancholia of Stanley's religious roots were so at opposites, that it made him funny, and them seriousness)
This give and take -- awareness of which gifts the artists had, what can be taken in a kind of barter situation, is throughout this book. It would be a mark of cynicism, but it is also a work of grace -- a kind of Christian gift economy, that has some amount of precedent. So, when Robert Plant worked with Alison Krauss, it was less him stealing wholly from black america, but negotiating decades of his own loves and his own roots. When he sings "Two Coats" on this album, he is extending his own authenticity seeking, but also laying down his skills at the feet of a master. The same can be said for Elvis Costello, whose love of blues and gospels is decades long. His wicked sense of humor can be said in his choice of material -- having the teetotaller Stanley provide punctuation to Costello's recently ragged voice -- both singing the traditional "Red Wicked Wine", about the problems of drunkenness, is not only effective, it is both moving and funny.
The balance between moving and funny is something that is often done to Stanley, and not done with Stanley. Stanley doesn't need a Cracker Barrel exclusive, but the people who work with him, need the social and religious capital that allow for his ideas to move forward. It is an evangelical idea, but this is an evangelical text. This might be a cynical review, but this is a cynical world -- and a world made less so, when on the last track of the album, he sings about his brother, overlaying his mourning over (yet another) recording of "Man of Constant Sorrow", is intensely moving. Maybe this is why you should go to the general store, buy a bottle of Cheerwine, and listen to this on the front porch.