Ralph Stanley

A Distant Land to Roam: Songs of the Carter Family

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When Victor Records field engineer Ralph Peer arrived in Bristol, TN, in the summer of 1927, he had a mission to record every rural Southern musician he could find. By the time he left Bristol, Peer had recorded 76 songs by 19 different acts and had set the cornerstones for the future of country music, a genre that had yet to be recognized or defined. Among the acts he recorded in that little Virginia/Tennessee border town were a trio consisting of two young girls and a sawmill worker from Virginia -- A.P. Carter, his wife Sara Carter, and Sara's cousin Maybelle Carter -- or the Carter Family, as they came to be known. A.P. was a song collector, and whether he had a particular fascination with songs about loss, loneliness, and mortality or those were simply the sorts of songs he heard in his Appalachian travels is a matter for the scholars and historians to decide, but the Carter Family's extensive catalog of traditional southern songs was full to the brim with tragic train wrecks, murders, and all manner of misfortune, and featured a profound yearning for deliverance and redemption. These were the songs that fellow Virginian Ralph Stanley and his brother Carter Stanley grew up with, and when they began their professional career as the Stanley Brothers, the Carter Family tunes were a staple of their act from the start. In 2006, at the age of 79, Ralph Stanley has dedicated a whole album to the Carter Family material he has lived with and loved all of his life. A Distant Land to Roam isn't really a bluegrass album, with only the chugging version of "Worried Man Blues" crossing anywhere near the normal velocity of most contemporary bluegrass, but is instead a sort of hybrid between the Carter Family's original stark string band arrangements and a good old back porch country-folk band, all given a chiming, old-timey feel thanks largely to the presence of Mike Seeger's autoharp on most of the tracks. The feel of loneliness and immense distance that permeates this set comes partly from the songs that A.P. was drawn to, but also from Stanley's trademark singing, which carries an uncanny amount of weariness, desperation, resignation, and sheer dogged wisdom in nearly every note. Although Stanley's voice admittedly isn't as strong as it use to be, the ragged and shaky edges to his delivery here only gives these songs an added presence, depth, and forlorn immediacy. These, after all, were the songs he was born to sing, and they benefit from the frayed margins, sounding freshly revealed. The obvious centerpiece of A Distant Land to Roam is Stanley's amazing version of "Motherless Children," which starts with Stanley's unaccompanied vocal before it is joined and supported by Todd Meade's funereal fiddle line, resulting in a sad, transcendent, and unforgettable performance. A remarkably consistent and coherent sequence, this release shows exactly how vital and durable the Carter Family tradition and Ralph Stanley both continue to be.

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