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By Steve Romanoski
I'LL ANSWER THE CALL-Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys
personnel: Ralph Stanley- banjo & vocals/ Sammy Adkins- guitar & vocals/ Junior Blankenship- guitar & vocals/ Curly Ray Cline- fiddle/ Jack Cooke- bass & vocals
I'll Answer The Call/ White Oak On The Hill/ Let The Church Roll On/ In His Arms I'm Not Afraid/ Calling My Children Home/ Everything's Alright/ Praying/ I'll Put On A Crown/ I'd Like To Talk It Over With Him/ We Shall Sleep/ Daddy's Rose/ Welcome In
CLINCH MOUNTAIN GOSPEL - Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys
Rebel Recordings (originally issued 1977)
personnel: Ralph Stanley- banjo & vocals/ Keith Whitley- guitar & vocals/ Troy "Renfro" Profitt- guitar/ Danny Marshall- mandolin/ Curly Ray Cline- fiddle/ Jack Cooke- bass & vocals/ Chester Marshall- vocals
Over In The Gloryland/ Beautiful Star Of Bethlehem/ Oh, Death/ There'll Be None On The Other Side/ Mother's Not Dead/ Jesus Savior Pilot Me/ Traveling The Highway Home/ I've Just Seen The Rock Of Ages/ Amazing Grace/ What A Price/ Are You Afraid To Die?/ I Am Weary (Let Me Rest)
CRY FROM THE CROSS -- Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys
Rebel Recordings (originally issued 1971)
personnel: Ralph Stanley- banjo & vocals/ Roy Lee Centers- guitar & vocals/ Keith Whitley- guitar & vocals/ Troy "Renfro" Profitt- guitar/ Ricky Skaggs - mandolin, fiddle & vocals/ Curly Ray Cline- fiddle/ Jack Cooke- bass & vocals/ Ed Farris - bass/ Cliff Waldron - clapping
Cry From The Cross/ You're Drifting On/ Will He Wait A Little Longer/ Bright Morning Star/ Death Is Only A Dream/ Come On Little Children/ Take Your Shoes Off Moses/ Stairway To Heaven/ I Am The Man, Thomas/ Step Out In The Sunshine/ Sinner Man/ Two Coats
SECOND GENERATION - Ricky Skaggs & Keith Whitley
Rebel Recordings (originally issued 1971)
Personnel: Keith Whitley- guitar & vocals/ Ricky Skaggs- mandolin, fiddle & vocals/ Roy Lee Centers- guitar/ Curly Ray Cline- fiddle/ Ralph Stanley- banjo & vocals/ Jack Cooke- bass
Don't Cheat In Our Hometown/ Dream Of A Miner's Child/ Memories Of A Mother/ Poor Monroe/ Daybreak In Dixie/ All I Ever Loved Was You/ My Deceitful Heart/ Son Of Hobert/ Sea Of Regret/ Those Two Blue Eyes
I'm one of those people that cringe whenever a new technology affects my life. But, after allowing these technological alterations the time to settle in, I often find myself championing their cause. Certainly one of these contemporary distractions occurred when the recording industry abandoned the production of vinyl recordings for compact disk technology. However, today I find myself sitting next to a wall of compact discs and celebrating the reissue of four vintage Ralph Stanley recordings from the dark vaults of Rebel Records.
The first three of these reissues are classic gospel recordings from different periods in the career of Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys. The reissue of these works allows comparison of Stanley's presentations over three distinct periods.
The first period is represented by Cry From The Cross and is notable for the debut appearance of guitarist and lead vocalist Roy Lee Centers in the Clinch Mountain Boys. In addition, this recording features an enlarged edition of the Clinch Mountain Boys, which, at the time, included two young Kentucky musicians, Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley, at the beginning of their careers. And, while Whitley moved on to become a treasured vocalist in both bluegrass and country circles, he assumed a predominant back-up role in the structure of this recording. However the contributions of the young Skaggs were extremely important to the new sound that Stanley was bringing to bluegrass at the time.
Cry From The Cross works the gospel in hard core mountain style. Thus, the instruments are often included as an element to amplify the moods set down by the vocalists. And, in this format, the primitive fiddle style of Curly Ray Cline is an absolutely effective tool. An example is found in the traditional "Two Coats." Stanley's presentation is a study in simplicity with the vocal trios of Centers, Skaggs and Stanley framed with a simple guitar and bass back-up. Cline weaves his fiddle work from providing punctuation to Stanley's lead to creating a shrieking cry to amplify the lonely nature of the lyrics and production. Later, in "Take Your Shoes Off Moses," we hear Cline utilizing a shrill fiddle line as a vehicle to highlight the important line in the chorus. And, in a sense, that was the strength in the music of Curly Ray Cline. He found new meaning for the fiddle that went beyond simply playing the notes. Thus, on straight bluegrass his presence was often an abrupt inclusion. Yet when he used his instrument to find a unique space in a musical universe, we discover a man ahead of his time.
Roy Lee Centers was a vocalist who reminded Ralph of his late brother. His artistic kinship with hard-edged mountain style of performance and Ralph himself are evident on this recording. And, again, the contradictions of style that Stanley presents in his music are clearly exhibited. Centers could effortlessly propel the band toward what was conventional in the traditional bluegrass world with fluid vocal style. This was a period where Ralph was redefining his sound in which Centers had a major role. Perhaps the shining moment for Roy Lee on Cry From The Cross is found in "Stairway To Heaven." This gospel number, penned by Bill Grant, holds no comparison or connection to its namesake, which became a signature piece for the rock giants Led Zepplin. Centers is magnificent on this tune and illustrates how his vocal style could coexist with the harsh harmonies of Ralph Stanley.
John Wright notes, in his excellent volume on Ralph Stanley, Travelling The High Way Home (University Of Illinois Press/ 1993), that during 1971 "The Clinch Mountain Boys recorded ten long-playing albums, netted Ralph Stanley the title of Entertainer Of The Year from the magazine Muleskinner News, while the album Cry From The Cross was named Bluegrass Album Of The Year." And to note that this vintage recording has moments of sheer distortion that actually should have been re-recorded prior to its original release in 1971, standing alongside the pure beauty of Stanley's a cappela version of "Bright Morning Star" makes the reissue of Cry From The Cross a welcome bit of history for bluegrass to devour.
In the next three years Ralph Stanley had found a new niche in the history of The Clinch Mountain Boys. Centers had been murdered in a senseless argument in 1974 and Ricky Skaggs had long since departed to purse new roads in the burgeoning progressive bluegrass movement. It was left to Keith Whitley, who had also departed the Clinch Mountain Boys, to assume the lead vocal chores. From this, the band found that the music had undertaken a dramatic change, which was quite evident in Clinch Mountain Gospel.
To many, Clinch Mountain Gospel was a high point in the career of Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Whitley became a magnificent lead singer who brought new, bluegrass mainstream, style to the harsh mountain stylings of Ralph Stanley. And this is evident from the first cut on the CD. "Over In The Gloryland" opens with a frailed banjo intro but quickly shifts into a contemporary feel from the moment that Whitley lets loose of the first line. This was a period where Stanley found many new converts to his hard-edged mountain music. Whitley was young, talented and ready to burst free.
Clinch Mountain Gospel enjoyed several benefits over Cry From The Cross. First, Whitley was allowed to take a more prominent position in the band than Centers. This placed Ralph's, occasionally dissonant, tenor into a more defined harmony role. We also find Cline's fiddle work to be more of a background element in the sound and some occasional mandolin work supplied by Danny Marshall in the mix. Also the recording technique was obviously improved as Ralph is properly placed in the mix and the distortion that was present in his past recordings was eliminated. From a recording standpoint, Clinch Mountain Gospel was a major step forward for Stanley.
The evolution of the Clinch Mountain Boys, at this point, was directed toward a general willingness of Ralph Stanley to take chances with the performance of his music. Whitley dominated the sound although his smooth delivery was a good match for Stanley's high harmony. A fine example is found in the classic "Oh Death." The song is arranged as a duet with Whitley taking on the dark side with a quivering vocal style that brought chills to this listener. Of course, a Stanley recording is often layered with instruments to punctuate the lyrics. Here we find Danny Marshall with a light mandolin tremolo creating an unearthly vibe. Clinch Mountain Gospel was, quite possibly, Stanley's greatest moment in the studio.
The final part of this reissue of classic Stanley gospel is I'll Answer The Call from 1988. Sammy Adkins had replaced Whitley as lead singer and Junior Blankenship took Renfro Profit's seat as lead guitarist. In addition, Stanley himself had replaced Charles Freeland as producer. It's obvious that the contrasts were to be dramatic but well within the Stanley boundaries.
Adkins provided a sufficient link from the more sophisticated stylings of Whitley. At this point Adkins brought the vocals into a dark, moaning, style that emphasized the mountain spirits that were definitely a part of the new production. Ralph seemed to incorporate elements of past styles together into his 1988 sound. For example, Cline returns to a featured position in the ensemble. Again, the fiddle work is more effects directed than a melodic statement. Also the base harmony work is sparse and cuts through any other mood that exists in the room when the music appears. An excellent example of this style of harmony is experienced in the a capella version of the classic "Calling My Children Home." There is no pretense of angelic notions in this performance. This falls into a direct mountain gospel style. Still, there's an element of mystery that draws the listener into this ancient music. The effect is further amplified, this time with instrumental backing, on "Praying." Now, while both selections differ in performance, they are of the same in effect. The vocals are harsh and straight forward. Hardly something that one might hear in a contemporary urban society. Yet there is something haunting in the performance that rekindles something deep within. That's what Ralph Stanley can produce when he's at his best. He certainly found his pace with I'll'Answer The Call.
The reissue of these three gospel chestnuts is welcome from several viewpoints. First, if you're a fan of Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys those old LPs are probably pretty scratched up by now. It's nice to see that bluegrass recognizes the responsibility to hold the old music for the old fans to replenish and the new fans to rediscover. All three of these reissues meet that purpose. And tied to that line of thought is the ability to explore the music that evolved into what modern bluegrass is today. Secondly, I'm a firm believer in keeping our history alive. All too often we, in contemporary society, allow our heritage to fade away into a blur of fast food and shopping malls. However, keeping the musical traditions alive is a step toward restoring a heritage that seems to becoming lost in time. Bluegrass music moves around in phases. And those of us who have consumed the music for a few more years that we like to admit can remember several traditionalist movements that drew strength from classic music of the genre'. And it will happen again! Possibly with inspiration from recordings like these.
I can't make any recommendation of one of these reissues over another. Each has a distinct flavour and personality, yet all exhibit that delicate connection that you'll find in quality music. I can say that, if someone takes the time to listen to each of these fine collections, they'll find that Ralph Stanley is an artist who allows his music to breathe. He is, without doubt, a staunch traditionalist, but understands that music, like children, need an amount of freedom to grow tall and strong. And this is certainly a reason why Ralph Stanley and his music have endured the years.
Second Generation is the final volume of these Rebel reissues. And, while there is a proper connection to the other three recordings, the spotlight on this one is, clear and simple, shining bright on the duet of Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs!
It's interesting to note that both Whitley and Skaggs too their talents on to Nashville during traditional country movements in the music. Additionally, both found their path to Nashville to come from the progressive wing of bluegrass. And, while Skaggs and Whitley achieved their goals as individuals, this duo was probably the most successful of all the bluegrass artists to make a mark in modern mainstream music. So how many would have thought that to be the case in 1971 when the boys got together to record Second Generation?
Keith and Ricky worked well together and Second Generation, which was recorded at the same time as was Cry From The Cross, was designed as a project that the duo could pitch and sell from the stage during their performances with Stanley. It grew into a recording that not only gained applause from the critics in 1971, but also a work that would illustrate the early abilities of two artists who would go on to rattle the bluegrass and country music establishments. Second Generation is a simply produced bluegrass recording that emphasizes the presence of the classic duet sound in the music. Whitley took the lead vocal duties on this one with Ricky workin' the high harmony. With afterthought in mind, I can hear the deeply rooted country traditionalism in Whitley who was in high school at the time.
In this setting one wishes that producer Charles Freeland would have held cline into the mix. There are times, specifically during "All I Ever Loved Was You", when the fiddle really interferes with the beauty of performance. Still, the boys actually overcome this problem and set down a recording that stands the test of time. One interesting inclusion was "Don't Cheat In Our Hometown," which became a hit song for a countrified Ricky Skaggs in years to come. The song is given a stronger bluegrass base when compared with the gentle elegance of "Dream Of A Miner's Child" which appears to be more of a showcase for Whitley's emotionalism or a near country rendition of "My Deceitful Heart."
The early 1970s were a glorious time for bluegrass and the music of the era illustrates that fact. These four reissues from Rebel not only bring back a lot of memories from that era, but some great old music too.
End of article.
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