The Stanley Brothers

The Definitive Collection 1947-1966

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There are scores of Stanley Brothers compilations out there, most of them label specific, but Time-Life's three-disc Definitive Collection is the one that die-hard fans have been dreaming of for a long time, a set that covers the brothers' entire 19-year recording career and includes tracks they cut for the Rich-R-Tone, Columbia, Mercury, King, and Starday imprints all collected side by side. Not that their legacy was ever in doubt, but it is still striking how remarkably consistent these Stanley Brothers sides are, and laid out like this, spanning 1947 to 1966, it's a body of work that is arguably the best that bluegrass has ever produced. Neither Carter Stanley or Ralph Stanley, of course, ever called what they did bluegrass, preferring to call it old-time mountain music or simply hillbilly music, and their sound was much closer to the old string band feel than either Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs, and thanks to their unique vocal harmony approach (a tenor lead with a high baritone above that and an even higher tenor -- usually mandolin player Pee Wee Lambert -- above that), no bluegrass group has ever sounded more high and lonesome than the Stanley Brothers with the Clinch Mountain Boys. This set has it all, from songs of God, love, and family to the scores of songs about misery and death that gave the Stanley Brothers their edgy, almost desperate immediacy in performance. "Man of Constant Sorrow," from 1960, is here, as is "Rank Stranger," recorded that same year, and 1964's "Oh Death." There's a blistering version of the old horse race song "Mollie and Tenbrooks" from 1948 and an impressive instrumental version of "Train 45" from 1959. A rare Ralph Stanley original, "Gonna Paint This Town," is here from 1958, along with an ominously romping take on the traditional "Little Maggie" from 1961. Also included here is the brothers' rendition of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky," a song they tracked at Monroe's urging in 1954 shortly after Elvis Presley's hit version was released, and it's interesting to note how their take on the song neatly bridges the stylistic gap between Monroe's and Presley's approaches. Also worth noting is a pair of guitar, banjo, and vocal duets between Carter and Ralph on "East Virginia Blues" and "Pretty Polly," both from 1966, which show that the brothers could have easily taken the pure folk route had they chosen to do so. Calling all of this material bluegrass seems almost too confining, although there's little doubt that Carter and Ralph profoundly influenced and shaped the genre. The Stanley Brothers, more so than Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs, were a clear extension of the mountain music they were born into, and in performance they were never truly more than a half-step away from the Appalachian string band tradition. They themselves called what they did hillbilly music, but as this wonderful career survey shows, whatever one calls it, it was soulful American music of the highest order.

Track Listing - Disc 1

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1
2:57
2
2:21
3
3:18
4
2:35
5
2:46
6
3:02
7
2:32
8
2:41
9
2:38
10
2:49
11
2:35
12
2:35
13
2:15
14
2:47
15
2:33
16
2:29
17
2:28
18
2:18
19
2:56
20
2:51
blue highlight denotes track pick