CD Review of The Definitive Collection by The Stanley Brothers

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The Definitive Collection
starstarstarstarhalf star Label: Time/Life
Released: 2007
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Despite the fact that it’s been four decades since bluegrass legends Ralph and Carter Stanley performed together, the public's fascination with them and their music continues to grow. After Carter’s death in 1966, Ralph revived the Clinch Mountain Boys and is recording and touring to this day (he turned 80 this past February). They were enshrined in the International Bluegrass Music Association’s prestigious Hall of Honor in 1992, and are currently the subject of a critically acclaimed stage production called “Man of Constant Sorrow.” And, of course, you can’t write about old-timey music these days without the obligatory reference to the hit film and soundtrack O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which did more to breathe new life into the bluegrass genre than anything. Successful albums by such luminaries as Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek – not to mention the still-flourishing alt-country movement – kept the momentum going, bringing the music to a much wider audience. Ralph even won a Grammy Award in 2002 for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for his song "O Death” (on the aforementioned O Brother soundtrack).

The Stanley Brothers were perhaps the first band to adopt the new style created by Bill Monroe in the mid-1940s that later became known as "bluegrass." Carter played guitar and sang lead while Ralph played banjo and sang harmony. The Stanleys' style can best be described as a traditional "mountain soul" sound – also known as “high lonesome” – a vocal style evolved from Baptist church singing in the mountains of Virginia, characterized by strong, high tenor harmonies sung behind the lead vocal line, usually sung in the lower tenor vocal range. Ralph even created his own unique style of banjo playing – called the “Stanley Style” – evolving the three-finger Earl Scruggs-technique with lightning-fast “forward rolls” in the higher registers of the instrument.

While Stanley Brothers CD collections are too numerous to count, and while they’ve been the subject of label-specific compilations in the past, the three-disc The Definitive Collection is the only set that spans their full career, and contains all of their most important, influential and beloved songs. The package is highlighted by three previously unreleased tracks: “Will You Be Loving Another Man” (1955), “Tell Me Why My Daddy Don’t Come Home” (recorded at a coffeehouse performance in Hollywood in 1962) and “Sugar Coated Love” (recorded with Carter’s longtime inspiration Bill Monroe). The box set also includes two additional songs that have never been available on CD before – “Hide Ye in the Blood” and “Dust On the Bible” – as well as a bunch of rare photos, many of which were culled from the vintage “song and picture books” that were sold by radio stations in the 1940s and ‘50s. The Definitive Collection also includes a biographical essay by bluegrass historian Gary Reid and an introduction by Ricky Skaggs.

~Una Persson