Ralph Stanley

The Essential Masters

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When Carter Stanley died suddenly in 1966 at the age of 41, his brother Ralph Stanley was left at an unenviable crossroads. Given that the Stanley Brothers were such a top-draw mountain bluegrass outfit, it almost seemed unimaginable that Ralph could continue performing at that prior level without his brother, who was the songwriter part of the duo. But continue he did, opting to stay close to the traditional Appalachian folk material he had grown up with, choosing songs that were often bone-chillingly dark and thus emotionally fitted to his ragged, weary-sounding tenor voice. This 18-song set samples some of the best of Stanley's early solo pieces, recorded in the late '60s for the King and Gusto labels, and includes the powerful "Hemlock and Roses," the traditional-sounding "I Wanna Go Home," and an edgy and gorgeous duet with Jimmy Martin on "Darling Brown Eyes." Again and again Stanley takes his voice to a spectral place beyond mere sadness, moving into the realms of mountain gospel, matched immeasurably, more often than not, by the harmonies of Larry Sparks. It is bluegrass (a word Stanley never uses, by the way, in describing what he does), but it is bluegrass by way of the string band, and it is as much a kind of ragged gospel as anything else, full of desperate redemption. It isn't about the banjo break for Stanley. It's about the song, and here that voice, which sounds as lonesome as a ghost crying out for solace on a starless night, brings both an authenticity and an intangible spiritual toughness to these stark tunes. Stanley would continue to deepen and refine his approach in the next four decades, but that considerable legacy begins with these early tracks.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 2:00
2 2:17
3 3:02
4 2:12
feat: Jimmy Martin
6 1:49
7 2:49
8 1:57
9 3:04
10 1:51
11 2:46
feat: Jimmy Martin
13 2:07
14 2:43
15 1:57
16 2:26
17 1:57
18 1:54
blue highlight denotes track pick