To an outsider, bluegrass often seems highly instrumental: breakneck banjo rolls, hot mandolin licks (one band even called itself Hot Licks) and improvised country syncopation. However, what marked out the music as singular in the early days was the quality of its vocals.
The music may have been the dream of one man - Bill Monroe - but its foundation includes not only Monroe but also Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers. Each had their own distinctive approach to singing and if Monroe's was all high, lonesome sound and Flatt & Scruggs a highly accessible populism, the Stanleys became synonymous with raw, powerful (yet reserved), mountain harmonies.
Carter and Ralph Stanley had a lifetime of singing and playing behind them when they made their first records in 1948. The later sides they made for King Records between 1961-66 are sometimes seen as inferior to those made earlier for Rich-R-Tone, Columbia and Mercury. I think they are every bit as wonderful.
By this date, Carter was wrestling with personal problems that eventually cut his life short. Like the jazz singer Billie Holiday and saxophonist Lester Young, he turned his fading health into a formidable artistic tool, channelling his demons into his impassioned, blues-drenched voice (check out I'm Only Human, The Hills Of Roane County and I Just Stood There). The combination of lyrics reeking of Victorian sentimentality tempered by heartfelt realism (nowhere more so than on No Letter In The Mail Today) is one of the great strengths of the Stanley Sound.
In previous decades, many of the Stanley Brothers King sides have been ill-served by less than ideal vinyl LP pressings and poorly packaged albums (one of the reasons some have downgraded their importance). The remastering here (by Nick Robbins), including removing fake applause from several of the 1963 “Folk Concert” recordings, restores the music to its very best fidelity, letting the power and beauty of the performances shine through unimpeded.
Carter Stanley died of cirrhosis of the liver on 1 December 1966, aged 41. His brother Ralph (now an octagenarian) continues to play the kind of music heard here. Since his Grammy Award-winning performance of Oh Death for the Coen brothers’ film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (and a subsequent role in the concert movie Down From The Mountains), Ralph has ensured that the Stanleys’ Clinch Mountain sound is now probably more well known internationally than even in the band's 1950s and 60s heyday.
By John Crosby