At night strange light will appear in marshes that flitters and dances for a few moments before it disappears. Known as will o' the wisps, these elusive lights always advance when approached. For hundreds of years, will o' the wisps have been spectral warnings to lonely travelers that there is another world waiting and watching. Scientists explain them away as methane gas produced by rotting plant material that ignites when it's released into the night air. Just as the will o' the wisp is an alien to this world as much it is a part of it, so is Ralph Stanley.
Ralph's greatest attribute these days is far and away his voice. It's the absence of Stanley's band, The Clinch Mountain Boys, that allows his voice to take center stage on his new release, Ralph Stanley. It's the moan and whine of a past that refuses to lie down and be forgotten. Like the light of a star that reaches Earth millions of years after the star has expired, Ralph's voice is the wind that howled through the Clinch Mountains a hundred years ago. It's as dense as smoked molasses poured into a shot of Clinch Mountain moonshine. Like all quality bluegrass instruments, as the decades Stanley's voice has spent in music roll by, it gets closer and closer to being the perfect instrument. When he sings, voices from long forgotten ages are loosed into this one.
For this reason, Stanley's prolific output of the past few years is not a mere yanking on the teats of the music industry cash cow. His talent lies far beyond the current O Brother Where Art Thou trend. Stanley continues to push in new directions. His most recent duets album, Clinch Mountain Sweethearts, continues exactly where the last two left off, which were so good that repeating the duets formula three times has proved to be anything but redundant. His recent album with Jim Lauderdale (the second one they've done together) is yet another example that even in his late 70s Stanley is willing to try new things in his music. Perhaps the fact that Stanley has listened mainly to his own music for the past few years, with occasional breaks for George Jones, is a reflection on his innate artistic sense. His most recent release, simply titled Ralph Stanley, is a leap in yet another direction. This album marks the first solo album that Stanley has ever put out, despite five decades of musical productivity.
Solo is a loose term, in that Stanley has help from none other than Norman Blake and T-Bone Burnett, as well as two members of the Cox family. The album is more of an old-time music album, with far less a bluegrass feel than Stanley's other efforts. Stanley has long resisted being labeled as a bluegrass musician, and this album makes a convincing case for him. Most of the songs were being sung long before Stanley was even born. The swing that The Clinch Mountain Boys put in Stanley's other efforts is absent here. Ralph Stanley is an album for those that have already been initiated. It's an anomaly in his overall output, so don't make this your first Ralph Stanley album. Start with The Stanley Brothers, or the duet albums Clinch Mountain Country and Saturday Night/Sunday Morning.
Stanley has never been known for his amazing banjo techniques. These days he barely takes any banjo parts, other than basic plucking, but rather leaves it up to the young virtuoso, Steve Sparkman, who tours with him. The foundation of Stanley's music lies in something other than his skills. Rather than enter the innovation race with banjo heavy-hitters such as Earl Scruggs or Snuffy Jenkins, Stanley focused on his songwriting and the depth of feeling he puts into interpretations of others songs.
Though this is a covers album, Stanley makes these songs all sound entirely his own. The strongest song on the album is his version of "The Death of John Henry". We all know the story of John Henry, but Ralph Stanley gives the song a flow not so different than a swinging hammer. Every time I hear it, I have to tap on something. Norman Blake's guitar runs certainly are a primary reason for that. The line "John Henry told his captain / I'm a Tennessee man / Before I would see that steam drill beat me down / I Die with my hammer in my hand" is reminiscent of Stanley's approach to life. After losing his brother Carter, who was also his musical partner, to the bottle, Stanley beat his grief and decided to forge on. He is an unapologetic mountain man, loyal to the old ways, and that is precisely why the music he makes is phenomenal.
Stanley is an old white man; in his 70s. He has lived in Virginia his entire life except for one 10-week stint at a factory up North. He doesn't use any musicians that aren't from the southern mountains. The Mary Ellen Mark photos on the cover and inside the record of Stanley staring at an old white building, is the master returned to his one room schoolhouse. As mentioned before, he listens only to his own music, and occasionally George Jones. So why is his popularity blossoming even as I write this?
If there is some earthly explanation as to why Stanley appeals to multiple generations, maybe it's because in his voice there is that angst and fear and self-doubt that ebbs and flows within all of us at times. He's the septic that numbs our wounds. His voice sounds so damned old because it is tapped right into that well of universal truths that overcomes the limits of age, race, and era. Hank Williams might have been talking about the good Lord in his song "Calling You" (which Stanley does a nice rendition of on this album), but his lines apply to Stanley as well. "When you stray from the fold / And there's trouble in your soul . . . When your soul is lost in sin / And you're at your journey's end . . . He will take you by the hand and lead you to that promised land."