“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.
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.”