Dr. Ralph Stanley is simply an American Treasure. His work with the Cinch Mountain Boys resulted in some of the most timeless bluegrass music of all time. He has helped inspire countless country music legends, such as Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley. When the O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack became a national phenomenon, his song "O Death" was one of the big reasons why. Ralph has a new album out now through Cracker Barrel. While it doesn't pave new ground, it doesn't have to. This is modern artists paying respect to one of the giants of country music. Man of Constant Sorrow is a lot of fun from start to finish.
The list of artists on this album are far-reaching, and proves the lasting impact that Ralph has had. Dierks Bentley, Lee Ann Womack, and Josh Turner are the big mainstream names you'll notice. Josh, who if you'll remember, asked Dr. Stanley to sing on his hit "Me & God", does a great gospel number "We Shall Rise", while Dierks delivers his trademark raspy vocals to "I Only Exist". Lee Ann Womack sounds perfectly at home in the bluegrass world with "White Dove". You'll also see some names from country music that aren't necessarily heard on the radio. Ricky Skaggs makes an appearance on "Sweethearts In Heaven", which should serve as no surprise. Old Crow Medicine Show does a really fun job with "Short Life Of Trouble". It may be my favorite song from the album. You'll also not be surprised to hear bluegrass legend Del McCoury cover "New Tennessee Waltz" and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings on "Pig In A Pen". Ralph's grandson Nathan Stanley guests on "Rank Stranger" and creates the perfect harmony that only a family can do. Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale inject energy and spunk into "I Am The Man, Thomas". All of these artists really do well with these classic songs, and offer a unique take on them. They are all fantastic.
You hear a few voices from outside the genre on this record. Elvis Costello adds his voice to "Red Wicked Wine". If you lived on another planet and had never heard of Elvis Costello, and had to judge him by this song alone, you'd swear he was some hillbilly mountain singer. He really fits right in on this album. It's one of my favorite tracks. Robert Plant also pops in, and offers a slow and moody take on "Two Coats". It evokes the same sound and tone of "o Death", but it doesn't quite work for me. It's a little too out there. However, it proves that Dr. Stanley has such a diverse audience.
The album closes with "Hills of Home" and "Man of Constant Sorrow" back to back, with Ralph taking the solo lead. He proves that he still has it at 87 years young. "Hills of Home" is a touching tribute to his brother Carter. As The Stanley Brothers, Carter and Ralph helped pioneer the great genre of bluegrass along with Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs, The big finish is the bluegrass classic, "Man of Constant Sorrow". The song is a traditional folk song, but it was tailor made for Dr. Stanley's voice. He delivers it with conviction and still sounds great.
These duet/tribute albums are hard to do. Letting other artists take on your hits is a risky move, We don't need rehashed versions of the same songs for no reason. However, this album works. Dr. Ralph Stanley has had such an illustrated and legendary career, and these tributes are a great way to keep his legacy alive. I hope that you will check this out, especially if you are a fan of one of the duet partners, but never really listened to Dr. Stanley. He is a pillar of real country music and bluegrass, and its great to see him still making great music, God bless Ralph Stanley.
Standout Tracks: "We Shall Rise", "I Only Exist", "Hard Life Of Trouble", "Red Wicked Wine", "Hills of Home", "Man of Constant Sorrow"