“He’s been so fully formed as a force of nature that his voice is just a beautiful, unique gift from God”: Singer-songwriter-producer Jim Lauderdale has boatloads of praise for bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley, whose latest album, Ralph Stanley and Friends: Man of Constant Sorrow, was released this week through Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores. The 13-track disc, co-produced by Lauderdale and Buddy Miller, features guest appearances from an impressive array of Stanley’s many musical disciples, including Dierks Bentley, Elvis Costello, Robert Plant, Ricky Skaggs, Lee Ann Womack and Josh Turner.
The LP, a dazzling mixture of fiddle-happy toe-tappers and mournful mountain ballads, closes with haunting solo versions of two of his most familiar tunes, “Man of Constant Sorrow” (popularized by the Soggy Bottom Boys band in the 2000 George Clooney film O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and “Hills of Home,” with a spoken introduction that finds Stanley directly addressing his late brother, Carter, to chilling effect.
“I want people to remember him as a being a good singer and a great asset to country-bluegrass music,” the 87-year-old Stanley tells Rolling Stone Country of his brother who died in 1966 at just 41 years old.
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The Stanley Brothers and their band, the Clinch Mountain Boys (named for their Virginia home), were among the first to emulate the hugely popular new bluegrass sound of Bill Monroe’s band in the late 1940s, which at the time included guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo player Earl Scruggs. The Stanley Brothers flourished and Flatt and Scruggs would go on to form their own successful group, much to Monroe’s consternation at the time. The Stanleys continued to perform together until Carter’s death. Once Ralph reorganized the Clinch Mountain Boys, such legendary performers as Larry Sparks, Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs would serve as members of his band. On the new LP, Skaggs joins Stanley on “We’ll Be Sweethearts in Heaven,” a pairing which proved emotional for Lauderdale.
“It was great to see Ricky and Ralph together,” Lauderdale says. “Those guys go so far back. Ralph is so proud of Ricky and Ricky looks up to Ralph so much. I was tearing up during the recording process and watching them talk for a while afterwards and say goodbye to each other. It just melted my heart.”
Including bluegrass musicians such as Skaggs and Del McCoury — along with country stars like Bentley, Womack and Turner, who all have obvious ties to the genre — is natural for such a recording project, yet Ralph’s grandson, Nathan Stanley, who plays guitar in the current incarnation of the Clinch Mountain Boys, notes that the participation of Costello and Plant was just as natural.
“Robert Plant is a great big Ralph Stanley fan,” the younger Stanley reveals. “He’s a wonderful talent and we just appreciate him so much. He was actually on tour when he took time out of his schedule to come record on this project. It just speaks volumes with to see somebody as big a star as Robert Plant taking time to pay tribute to one of his heroes and a true American icon such as my papaw.”
Stanley says the honor of such participation “makes me feel I haven’t lost anything for all the 69 years I’ve worked. I’m just proud I’ve done what I’ve done.”
Stanley’s grandson, who made his stage debut with the elder Stanley when he was just two years old, says that although playing or listening to music with his grandfather is the main thing they do together, he’s learned a lot just from the stories the elder performer has to tell.
“If we’re not on the road together, we will go out in the car to the grocery store or the post office, whatever,” he explains. “He’ll just start talking about the past, telling me things that happened. He’s a very quiet man, a humble man, but whenever he speaks you’d better listen, because whatever he says will be worth hearing.”
The three-time Grammy winner, who is commonly referred to as “Dr. Ralph” (he has two honorary doctorate degrees), was elected to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame as one-half of the Stanley Brothers in 1992. He has also earned the National Medal of Arts and the Living Legend Award from the Library of Congress. With the credentials he has accumulated, and the influence his high tenor voice and his band’s musicianship have had on other performers, it’s no surprise that none of the artists who were approached for this project turned him down. Another volume of collaborations could be in the offing, if Stanley doesn’t decide it’s time to retire.
“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be doing this,” he admits. “I’m 79 years old. . .”
Nathan corrects him — pointing out that he is in fact 87.
“I mean 87,” says Stanley. “I was close, wasn’t I?”