Graded on a Curve:
Ralph Stanley,
Best of the Best

When I was a young’un growing up in the dark hollers of Adams County, Pennsylvania, my granddaddy used to sit out on the sagging wooden front porch of his shotgun shack, take a sip of shine from a Mason jar, then pick up his battered banjo and commence to playing some good old-timey gospel bluegrass. They were doom-laden songs, many of ‘em, but the one I remember best went:

I was a sittin’ in a bar / In old Jericho / When in walked a stranger / Didn’t nobody know / And all our eyes followed as he ambled in / Because he was wearing the mullet of sin

Mullet of sin / Mullet of sin / Lord please remove this mullet of sin

The stranger sat down beside me / His eyes were fire red / Said I got a plan / To make us some bread / I had not a nickel, so said count me in / To that rank stranger with his mullet of sin

Mullet of sin / Mullet of sin / Lord please remove this mullet of sin

We robbed us a bank / Down in old Harney town / And while we was in there / That stranger shot a poor mother down / Now I’m spending my life in this cold and dark prison / Weeping and wearing my mullet of sin

Okay, so I just made that up. But I loves me some old gospel bluegrass, and you can’t do much better than Ralph Stanley, who preferred to call what he played “mountain music,” played one hell of a clawhammer banjo (I tried to learn the technique once, but I’ll be damned if that clawhammer didn’t reduce my poor banjo to kindling), and had a high, lonesome wail of a voice capable of calling down all the saints from Heaven. Made his name, with his older brother Carter, both of ‘em born in rural Stratton, Virginia, with the Clinch Mountain Boys, and were broadcast directly to your old 32-volt farm radio via WCYB in Bristol, Virginia.

Stanley was a wonder, whether he was playing a jaunty instrumental like the ass-whuppin’ “Orange Blossom Special,” or sending a ghostly shiver down your spine with such haunted tunes as “Oh, Death,” which the Coen Brothers used to great effect in their film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? He carried on after brother Carter passed in 1966, and didn’t depart this mortal coil for the blessed shores of eternity until 2016.

There must be a thousand (gross exaggeration) Ralph Stanley-oriented LPs out there, and I picked The Best of the Best, to be honest, because it didn’t have 200 tracks (gross exaggeration) on it. But what it did include were most of my Stanley faves, with the exception of the great “Rank Strangers to Me,” which Bob Dylan covered on one of his sorrier LPs, 1988’s Down in the Groove.

I love the show-offy hoedowns like “Shout Little Lulie (which was recorded live) and “Clinch Mountain Backstep,” on which Ralph practically sets fire to his instrument. Great fiddle too. “Little Birdie” isn’t an instrumental like the two previous tunes, but it still flies by like a runaway locomotive, while Stanley laments the girl who done him harm. On “Little Maggie” Stanley is down in the mouth again, this time about a girl who is “drinkin’ away her troubles,” and “courtin’ another man.” She carries a .44 and a banjo on her knee, and I love Stanley’s vocal stylings, and particularly the way he hangs onto words like he just can’t bear to let ‘em go.

On “Hills of Home” Ralph talks to his late brother Carter, and tells him how hard it was to go on without him. Maudlin? Sure, but when he talks about the day he’ll sit again by his brother in the hills of home it hits me where it hurts, mawkish or no. On the midtempo “I Only Exist” Stanley sings harmony, then goes it solo, singing, “No I’m not livin’/I only exist” since his darlin’ up and left him. He knew she was no good, his friends told him she was no good, but the poor man just couldn’t help himself, and now he wonders “How much longer/Can I go on like this?” Meanwhile, on the echo-laden and haunting “Medicine Springs” Stanley sings about a woman who said “she’d be forever true.” But he wanted the best for her and when the money ran out he “took what another man had.” Now he’s in the jailhouse, with a letter informing him his “darlin’ has left this world,” and he vows to return someday to Medicine Springs, where “the water that runs from the side of the hill/Will water her flowery grave.”

On “Going Up Home to Live in Green Pastures” Stanley and Company look forward to reaching eternity’s “heavenly shore,” while on “Hemlocks and Primroses” Stanley hangs on to his words and plucks his banjo to the accompaniment of a fiddle and guitar. It’s a lovely tune, this one, and comes complete with a harmonica solo, free of charge. Story line: Stanley sees a vision of womanhood, with teeth of ivory and whatnot, then awakens to find himself alone in his bed, his woman having left him. On “Little Willie” Stanley plays the role of a young girl seduced into leaving home by a scoundrel (Little Willie, you bastard!) who promises to marry her only to renege on the arrangement, leaving her bereft and far away from home.

“I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow” is one of my personal favorites, and the live version of the LP features one bouncy melody, a great fiddle, and the eerie vocals of Stanley, who wails and cries, lamenting his fate. Again, he knows how to hold onto a word until kingdom come, and his banjo provides a nice counterpoint to the fiddle. I don’t know who taught this feller to sing, but he did us all a great service. Meanwhile, “Oh Death” is as haunting a song as you’ll ever hear, moving from ensemble singing in which the singers linger over the title to faster verses, in which Stanley gets right down to the cold facts: “You’re stiffin’ my limbs/And makin’ me cold/Takin’ my body from my soul.” And all Stanley is left to do is deliver a futile plea: “Won’t you spare me over ‘til another year?”

My granddaddy always said Ralph Stanley was better than Bill Monroe, but I have no opinion on that matter. What I do know is that over his long career Stanley bequeathed us a body of work that is truly monumental, and picking any 12 songs and declaring them his best is an act of foolishness, to say nothing of record company rapacity. Still, Best of the Best is as good a place to start as any, and any man of constant sorrow will tell you as much.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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