Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys: The Complete Jessup Recordings Plus
In 1971 the Clinch Mountain Boys recorded three albums. Boss Ralph Stanley appeared on two and two country/bluegrass upstarts got their careers underway.
Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley were just teenagers when they met up with Ralph Stanley circa 1970. The legend goes that the duo happened to bring their instruments to a club where Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys were schedule to play. When the elder statesmen got a flat tire, the young lads started up their own set which was heavy on Stanley Brothers material. Their mentor liked what he heard and urged Jack Lynch at Jalyn Records to record the teens as soon as he could.
In January 1971, Whitley and Skaggs entered the studio for a session with the Clinch Mountain Boys. That record would first be issued as Tribute to the Stanley Brothers and bore the Whitley/Skaggs names on the cover, although reissues would include Ralph Stanley’s name with the Clinch Mountain Boys. In truth, he probably didn’t play a single a lick on the sessions or open his mouth to sing.
The ten songs that comprised that collection are represented here in full and are evidence of talents that are already fully formed despite the tender years of the two main performers. “We’ll Be Sweethearts in Heaven”, “Lonesome River”, and especially “Little Glass of Wine” are among the best but the record itself, if not classic, cooks along at an impressive clip with material culled from the deep well of the Carter and Ralph Stanley songbook.
It was a different story when everyone reconvened for the album Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys Sing Michigan Bluegrass, a volume that was seen as a nod to displaced southerners working in Michigan’s then prosperous auto industry. It was Stanley’s first record for Jessup Records. Stanley would claim that the record was cut between sets at a festival but that doesn’t mean that the material suffers from it. These were songs that had been honed on the stage, including the murder ballad “River Underground” (one of the record’s best) and “Another Song, Another Drink”, featuring Keith Whitley on lead vocals. “Are You Proud of America” is a snapshot of the country in 1971, in the heat of a war in Vietnam and deep unrest at home.
The lineup from that first Jessup release was back together and in the studio in October 1971, tracking Gospel Echoes of the Stanley Brothers, featuring Skaggs on mandolin and fiddle, Whitley on guitar alongside Roy Lee Centers, Jack Cooke on bass, and Curly Ray Cline on fiddle. Stanley, of course, handled banjo duties with aplomb. The material is quintessential Stanley Brothers with Carter Stanley’s “White Dove” and “Shouting on the Hills of Glory” as well as his brother’s “A Few More Seasons to Come” and “Daniel Prayed” and a choice piece by Ruby Rakes (“Wings of Angels”) and one from J.L. Frank and Pee Wee King, “My Main Trial Is Yet to Come”.
Colin Escott’s impressive liner notes indicate that tragedy would strike this ensemble a few times in subsequent years. Centers was murdered in 1974 and Whitley died all-too-young in 1989 after a profound battle with alcoholism. But none of that’s on the horizon on these recordings which sound fresh and true all these years later, repackaged across two discs you won’t soon tire of listening to.