Carter and Ralph Stanley were born in the 1920s in Virginia’s Dickenson County, in the Clinch Mountains of Appalachia, soon after the prosperous coal mining and lumber industries had nearly doubled the area’s population. Their musical education was a product of their environment — hymns in church and Grand Ole Opry broadcasts on the radio — and their instruments, which they picked up at an early age, were taught to them by friends and family. The music they would later create together, as one of America’s preeminent and seminal bluegrass groups alongside contemporaries like Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs, would reflect the lonesome beauty of their home and come to define an archetype of American music.
Bluegrass greenhorns were most likely first introduced to the music of the Stanley Brothers, perhaps unknowingly, in the Coen Brothers’ 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its best-selling soundtrack of recast country nuggets. Three songs written by or associated with the Stanleys were featured in the film: the aching country soul ballad “Angel Band”, the now-immortal “Man of Constant Sorrow”, and the chilling “O Death”, which Ralph himself rerecorded for the soundtrack. (Carter died of cirrhosis in 1966 at the age of 41.) The unexpected success of the soundtrack proved that national audiences remained hungry for old-timey bluegrass and country music, despite its seemingly localized appeal and antiquated typecast. (The O Brother factor did, however, reinforce country music’s stealthy dominance in the marketplace; 2006, for example, saw country music sales continue to increase while overall album sales fell.) Bluegrass music hasn’t changed all that much since the middle of the 20th century, but then it’s always been music of constancy, not of change, and the Stanley Brothers will probably always be one of its most resolute practitioners.
Time Life’s fantastic three-disc set, The Definitive Collection (1947-1966), is aptly named, for it’s the very first Stanley Brothers compilation to include tracks from every label they recorded for, including Rich-R-Tone, Columbia, Mercury, King, and Starday. Therefore, it’s an incredible collection for novices and fans alike, compiling the Stanleys’ greatest secular and gospel sides, songs from the band’s famed radio shows, and a handful of previously unreleased live recordings, along with a generous booklet of photos and highly informative liner notes. Some say that the Stanleys’ Mercury recordings from 1953 are their best, and it’s true that songs like Carter’s “(Say) Won’t You Be Mine” and Ralph’s “I’m Lonesome Without You” are early perfections of the style they’d disseminate well into the mid-’60s.
But the real jewels in The Definitive Collection come from the Stanleys’ King and Starday tenures, where they recorded not only “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “O Death”, but firecrackers like “Gonna Paint This Town” and “How Mountain Girls Can Love” (listen to Ralph’s banjo and Ralph Mayo’s fiddle tussle it out in this one), the comedy tune “How Far to Little Rock” (incidentally, the band’s only recording that made the Billboard charts while they were together), the mandolin-led ballad “Rank Stranger”, and the galloping “Little Birdie”. The Stanley Brothers are bluegrass music (“mountain soul”, Ricky Skaggs described their sound), as all 60 songs in this set attest, from the first whiplash banjo run to the last fluttering mandolin, from every mortal voice in their tightly-knit collective that seems to come from somewheres on high.
The Stanley Brothers were responsible for a number of bluegrass innovations, including a three-part harmony style that added a high baritone to the preexisting lead and high tenor voices, and bandmate George Shuffler’s cross-picking guitar style. The real reason for the band’s immortality, however, is not its ground-breaking modernizations, for those sorts of things are lost to contemporary definitions of a genre at-large. Carter and Ralph made supreme American music together, a twangy confluence of banjo, guitar, and those two voices — Ralph’s high tenor teetering atop Carter’s anchor — that spoke of a profound lonesomeness and tangible countryside, of blue moons and midnight trains, of sins committed and penances sought, of life full of green grass and star-spotted night and of death, looming and indiscriminate. Exactly what else is there?