Words by Russell Carstens

Ralph Stanley is known as the king of American bluegrass music. He’s been plucking his banjo and writing old-time bluegrass classics since 1946. His new album, Man of Constant Sorrow, is a thirteen-track affair, eleven of which feature guest appearances. Forgoing a traditional release, the album is available at all Cracker Barrel Old Country Store locations and on crackerbarrel.com.

Stanley clearly feels blessed to be making music at the age of 87. This is reflected in the Resurrection-themed lyrics of the opener “We Shall Rise” (with Josh Turner). These lyrics mirror the song’s lively fiddle playing. The theme of Christian hope remains throughout this traditional number, with a refrain of, “We shall rise on that Resurrection morning/when those prison bars are broken.” These themes are revisited on “I Am the Man, Thomas,” taking Jesus’ point of view as he shows his Crucification scars to the doubting Apostle Thomas.

The banjo playing is especially intricate and beautiful on “I Only Exist” (with Dierks Bentley), an uptempo number with downtrodden lyrics about being left by a lover and the sadness that follows. The pair laments about the pain nearly all people feel at one time or another, singing “No, I’m not living/ I only exist/ How much longer/ Can I go on like this?”

Stanley’s voice may be slightly strained at times on “Rank Stranger,” but his sincerity and heartfelt love for the music brilliantly shines through nonetheless. His voice is as charming as ever, beautiful in its worn and weathered state as acoustic guitars, fiddle and mandolin gracefully intertwine. “White Dove” features Lee Ann Womack on vocals, whose sweet voice is a refreshing change — and when Stanley joins her on the chorus, their voices meld together pleasingly.

“Red Wicked Wine” features Elvis Costello, and “Two Coats” features Robert Plant. The inclusion of these mainstream legends shows how deeply Stanley’s influence has permeated into iconic artists. The music of “Two Coats” is hauntingly minimal, aside from a droning fiddle. This gives the song a Velvet Underground-esque quality, sounding like the spirit of John Cale’s viola has been channeled. Stanley and Plant sing, “I’ll tell you/ The best thing I ever did do/ I took off the old coat and put on the new.” Perhaps they are singing about the rebirth many people of faith experience.

On “Pig in a Pen” the guitars, banjos and mandolins intertwine tightly, giving a very bright, luminous sound which paints a picture of sunshine-soaked country plains on this two-minute blast of fun. Another standout, “Hills of Home,” features Stanley speaking over the song to his deceased brother Carter, who was his musical partner until his death in 1966. Stanley reminisces over their first radio show, recording sessions, and travels before bidding his brother to rest in peace. It is touching and sincere when the song ends with, “Let me rest on the peaceful mountain/ In the hills near my home sweet home.”

Man of Constant Sorrow is just what Stanley and friends intend it to be: an enjoyable collection of traditional bluegrass music. The guest appearances may reel in some newcomers to the genre, and if so, that’s a good thing. This album would be a great place to start for a bluegrass newbie. Grab it at Cracker Barrel on your next road trip and enjoy the ride.

Ralph Stanley
‘Man Of Constant Sorrow’
CB Music/Cracker Barrel
© January 19th, 2015



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