Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley is nothing if not a canny businessman.
Not content with the prices he’d get from selling at the wholesale level, the 73-year-old banjo player is personally peddling Old Time Songs, a long-lost late-night 1956 recording of “The Doctor” (Ralph has an honorary degree) and his brother, Carter Stanley, along with mandolin player Curley Lambert and fiddler Ralph Mayo.
The album is only available from Ralph Stanley himself, at one of his not-so-infrequent appearances with the Clinch Mountain Boys, or by mail order from his home in Virginia.
“It’s like getting in on a little private concert or jam session,” said Tom Diamant, who hosts the Pacifica Radio Network bluegrass radio show “Panhandle Country.”
“They recorded many of these tunes elsewhere, but these are certainly unique. It [the album] has a nice quality.”
In a recent concert appearance in San Francisco, Stanley — who also peddles a series of personal-model banjos — told the crowd how he and his brother had made the recordings, only to have the tapes disappear for decades. But for $15, you can get one from Stanley himself before or after a Clinch Mountain Boys set. He’s even likely to offer to autograph it, too.
John McCord managed to talk Stanley out of a handful for sale at his store, Down Home Music, in El Cerrito, Calif. “You’re the only store in North America that’s got ‘em,” he said Stanley told him.
McCord said he imagined that eventually the album, the second issued on Stanley’s Stanleytone label, would be made available more widely.
The recordings were made at the behest of Larry Ehrlich, a folk and bluegrass musician from Chicago who had become a fan and then a friend of the Stanley brothers.
The four musicians sat down under a single boom mic at radio station WCYB in Bristol, Va., and cut a tape of some of their favorite songs. The taping ran well past midnight of a long day that had included a performance by the brothers’ band — indeed, the last songs on the tape don’t have a mandolin at all because Lambert was asleep on the floor.
Ehrlich asked the Stanleys to sing and play songs that they liked but were not performing. The result was music drawn from old church hymnals, folk sources from their youth in Virginia, songs of the Carter Family and the 1920s ensemble of G.B. Grayson and his blind fiddler partner Henry Whitter.
“We haven’t sung that in 15 years,” you can hear one of the brothers say after a song.
Ralph Stanley has had some marvelous singing partners through the years, including the young Larry Sparks, but there was something special in the blend of his voice with that of his brother, who died in 1966. Smooth as butter, resonant as double stops on a cello, Carter and Ralph were magic in their duet singing.
Tape Contains Surprises
Many of the 20 songs on this tape later became standards for Ralph: “Feast Here Tonight” (also known as “Rabbit in the Log”), “Train 45,” and “East Virginia Blues” (RealAudio excerpt) among others. “Come All You Tenderhearted,” which Ralph later recorded mostly as a recitation, is sung here in its entirety.
On the tape, you can hear Ehrlich ask Carter where he learned this sad song about a woman who goes next door to visit neighbors and returns to find her house afire with her children in it. “From an old Baptist hymnbook, an old songbook, Larry, many years ago,” Carter replies.
There are a couple of songs on the tape previously unknown to even die-hard Stanley fans.
“The Story of the Lawson Family” (RealAudio excerpt) is another sad (but true — it happened in 1929 in eastern Kentucky) tale of a man who killed his wife, children and then himself.
And “My Long Skinny Lanky Sarah Jane” (RealAudio excerpt) is a surprise, a novelty song obviously related to “All Go Hungry Hash House” that Charlie Poole and his North Carolina Ramblers recorded in 1926. The dear girl is “knock-kneed, box-ankled and she’s lame,” and “they say her teeth are false for they rattle when she walks,” but the singer pines for her anyway.
Bluegrass and old-time music fans know better than most that newer, louder and faster isn’t necessarily better. Listening to this wonderful, simple music brings that concept home, through the ears and straight to the soul.