What a treat this collection is. Real Gone Music has re-released on two CDs three obscure LPs from the early 1970s when Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs first joined Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys. The titles originally were released on the small Michigan-based label Jessup and (the “Plus!” of the title) the Dayton, Ohio-based Jalyn.
As the informative liner notes by prolific music journalist Colin Escott point out, progressive bluegrass dominated the scene in the early ’70s, but Stanley kept soldiering on with his own brand of traditional bluegrass with the Clinch Mountain Boys that he assembled after his brother Carter Stanley’s death in 1966. Two young musicians, though, were huge fans of the Stanleys. Whitley and Skaggs, who were still in high school, were recruited to entertain the crowd one night when Stanley and Co. were delayed by car troubles, and thus were discovered by Stanley playing his old songs when he finally did arrive.
The two were given the privilege of recording an album of Carter Brothers songs on Jalyn, using members of the Clinch Mountain Boys as backup. It was originally released as Tribute to the Stanley Brothers by Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs. Later, after the two joined the band it was reissued as Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mounain Boys featuring Keith Whitley & Ricky Skaggs. They dug pretty deep into the Stanley catalog for a program of songs mostly by Carter Stanley. The very fresh-voiced Whitley sings lead and Skaggs high harmony on love songs like “I Love No One But You” and “Loving You Too Well,” the murder-by-poison ballad “Little Glass Of Wine,” the prodigal son ballad “Mother No Longer Awaits Me At Home” and the standard “I Long To See The Old Folks.”
The rest of this two-CD set is filled out by the two Jessup releases, 1971’s Michigan Bluegrass and 1973’s Gospel Echoes of the Stanley Brothers. The first has a couple of flag-waving ballads typical of the genre during those years of national strife over the Vietnam War, “Are You Proud Of America” and “Let’s Keep Old Glory Waving.” More notable are the Gene Duty-Ralph Stanley bitter love song “Rock Bottom,” the drinking barfly’s anthem “Another Song, Another Drink,” and Stanley’s “Ain’t It Hard,” set to a tune also known as “Way Downtown” and “Late Last Night.” It also has a couple of real curiosities, “River Underground,” a unique murder ballad in which the protagonist gets away with the deed but feels really bad about it; and “Daughter of Geronimo,” a fanciful ballad about a fellow who buys the titular Indian maiden from a fur trader, and she later saves him from a massacre. Curly Ray Cline, fiddler for the Clinch Mountain Boys, penned the two instrumentals, the lively bluegrasser “Buckwheat” and the foot-tapping old-time tune “Hulla-Gull.”
The best by far of the three albums is the last, 1973’s *Gospel Echoes of the Stanley Brothers* on which the band remade a dozen solid bluegrass gospel songs earlier recorded by the brothers. Speaking as an agnostic, I can’t get enough of this kind of music – the harmonies, the utter lack of irony, the clear-eyed application of biblical verse to matters of everyday life. And there are some true classics here, including “The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn,” “Wings Of Angels,” “White Dove,” “Daniel Prayed,” and “Leaning On Jesus,” Ralph Stanley’s bluegrass arrangement of “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms.”
Of course at about the time that these records were being made, change was afoot. Sometime in 1971 a bunch of long-haired rockers who loved traditional country music went to Nashville and made a three-LP set with some of the stalwarts – the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken album helped begin a revival of traditional bluegrass among younger generations that continues to reverberate today. Ricky Skaggs went on to a career as a “new traditionalist” in Nashville, but has now come back to the bluegrass he still loves. Keith Whitley died of the effects of alcohol abuse in 1989 at the age of 33. Ralph Stanley continues to record and tour as one of the most highly respected figures in American roots music.
These albums have been nicely remastered and presented along with an informative booklet. It’s great to have them back in circulation.
Real Gone, 2016