Bluegrass pioneers: The Stanley Brothers
What’s an old picker to do but keep on picking? And maybe picking up some new tricks and new friends along the way?Following are reviews of recent CDs by bluegrass and folk artists of a certain age.”The Stanley Brothers: The Definitive Collection” (1947-1966)(Time/Life)Ralph Stanley, “A Distant Land to Roam”produced by Larry Ehrlich & Bob Neuwirth (Columbia/DMZ)The Stanley Brothers don’t get the title of the Father of Bluegrass, reserved for Bill Monroe. And the Stanleys rightly concede the name to Monroe, who gave bluegrass its sound (a blend of blues and Appalachian string styles), and its name (after his band, the Blue Grass Boys).So Ralph Stanley, who still tours at the age of 80, and Carter, who died in 1966, have to settle for runners-up as the most influential of the early bluegrass acts. But as “The Definitive Collection,” a superb three-CD package from Time/Life attests, the race is close. True, some of the highlights here – “Get Down On Your Knees and Pray,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Molly and Tenbrooks” – are the Stanley Brothers’ takes on Monroe’s compositions. But the Stanleys counter with “The Lonesome River,” “Angel Band” and “The Fields Have Turned Brown,” all original songs that have worked their way deep into the acoustic repertoire. And for a song to match Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” popularized by rock ‘n’ roller Elvis Presley, in mass recognition, the Stanleys have “Man of Constant Sorrow,” the centerpiece of the huge-selling “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack.In terms of sound, the Stanley Brothers were more rustic than their counterpart Monroe. The Stanleys style has often been referred to as “mountain music,” a reflection of their rougher edges. That didn’t mean their music was any harder to warm to; Carter, who handled lead vocals (and guitar, while Ralph took tenor and banjo) stands up to anyone who sang the “high, lonesome” style.Absorb “The Definitive Collection” – including the spectacular booklet, which leads off with an admiring essay by Ricky Skaggs – and you will have a strong grasp on the early days of bluegrass, whether you listen to Bill Monroe or not.Ralph’s picking skills may have eroded; he doesn’t play the banjo on “A Distant Land to Roam,” a tribute to the songs of the Carter Family. But his voice, made creaky by age, only gains in authenticity and determination. Stylistically, it’s staggering to think how little Stanley has been affected by the six decades that have passed since he started recording.
Charlie Louvin, “Charlie Louvin”produced by Mark Nevers (Tompkins Square)Charlie Louvin, who formed the top country group the Louvin Brothers with his late brother Ira, gets the guest-star treatment here. Producer Mark Nevers, who has worked with such up-to-the-moment acts as Calexico and Lambchop, lined up the likes of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Elvis Costello, and country artists like George Jones and Marty Stuart, to sing with Louvin. But Nevers, and the guest singers, bring a soft, respectful touch to the proceedings. Louvin’s voice – still deep and strong at 79 – generally stays at the center of the songs; even Costello tones down his act on a version of “When I Stop Dreaming.” The production is contemporary, but Louvin stays in his comfort zone with updated versions of old Louvin Brothers tunes and songs by Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and the Monroe Brothers that stay true to roots country. The one new tune is “Ira,” a low-key but loving tribute to his late brother, who died in a car accident in 1965.
Jorma Kaukonen, “Stars in My Crown”produced by Byron House (Red House)Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen could well have stuck to the same mold that resulted in “Blue Country Heart,” his stellar 2002, Grammy-nominated album that focused on Depression-era folk music. But now with a new label, the 66-year-old Kaukonen – whose résumé includes being a hired electric guitarist for the Jefferson Airplane and co-founding Hot Tuna, though his heart is in acoustic folk-blues – opted to do some more stretching. Where “Blue Country Heart” featured a steady quartet of string pickers, “Stars in My Crown” is expansive in instrumentation (horns, drums, organ, a multitude of backing singers), style (swing, folk, reggae) and material (blues by Lightning Hopkins and the Rev. Gary Davis, Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around,” a bunch of originals).There is a spiritual theme that links the songs here, but it is not nearly as strong a thread as the one that bound “Blue Country Heart.” So here there is more variety – which has its own rewards – but also more ups and downs. The skewed reggae lilt on “By the Rivers of Babylon” displays an unfamiliarity with the style, and Kaukonen’s voice sinks the undertaking. But Hopkins’ “Come Back, Baby” allows Kaukonen to delve into the blues he knows so well. He uses that solid foundation to create a unique form of blues, built on the uncommon combo of guitar, mandolin, upright bass and harmonica. And the original instrumental “Living in the Moment” is classic Jorma, sophisticated and inventive.
The limits of Kaukonen’s voice are evident again on “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown,” but the joy in the grand gospel arrangement trumps the singing. Any Kaukonen gives himself a second chance to shine on the tune; the album closes with his brief, solo acoustic take on the song.Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, “More Behind the Picture Than the Wall”produced by Lawson (Rounder)Doyle Lawson – who turns 63 today – can be counted on for several things: an album a year (at least: The regularity of his output is stunning). A clean, traditional take on the bluegrass sound. And words sung in praise of a benevolent God.On “More Behind the Picture Than the Wall,” Lawson and his band leave out this last element and set out to make music for the other six days of the week. But sharp playing and spot-on harmonies work just as well on songs about romance, rivers and the blues as they do the gospel. And Lawson, no surprise, finds material with weight to it, like “Whatever Happened to Us,” a reflection on the remnants of love; and the meditative “The Selfishness in Man.” Lawson and company show what a good time they can have on the fleet-fingered instrumental “Tulsa Turn-A-Round.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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