Ralph Stanley

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Ralph Stanley, who is without a doubt the finest first-generation bluegrass singer still alive, here delivers 12 old-time gospel songs in a cappella quartet arrangements, and the result bears no more relationship to bluegrass than Gregorian chant does to a symphony. Though the cutting edge of Stanley's tenor voice has been ground down by decades of use, his mountain melisma has never sounded better. Rarely does he end a phrase on the single note you expect; instead he winds around it before landing gently, lending tremendous power to every cadence without ever raising his voice. His rendition of "God Put a Rainbow in the Clouds" is revelatory, almost on a par with his legendary performances of "Man of Constant Sorrow" and "Two Coats." "Village Church Yard" taps into a deep but stark vein of religious feeling and musical tone that borders on the medieval. And on "The Day Is Past and Gone" (actually a rearrangement of the shape-note hymn "Evening Shade"), he "lines out" each lyric before the other members of the quartet kick in with their parts. It's an approach he uses frequently throughout this program, despite the fact that everyone obviously knows the songs; he does it not because it's necessary, but because you're supposed to feel like you're in church when you listen to this music. If goose bumps could kill, possession of this album would be a felony.

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