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Feature review: Ralph Stanley, A Mother’s Prayer

Ralph Stanley
A Mother’s Prayer
[Rebel Records (2011)]

A few years ago, Ralph Stanley recorded a tribute to the Carter Family with 2006’s Distant Land to Roam. What made the release especially meaningful was the 84-year-old legend’s deep running connection to the First Family of Country Music, being from the next county over in Southern Virginia and experiencing similar, if not identical, mountain traditions. Though they weren’t necessarily golfing buddies, once, in the late 1950s, Ralph and his brother Carter (as the Stanley Brothers) played a concert at AP Carter’s “park” (think outdoor house concert).

A similar deep connection exists here on this gospel affair—Appalachian sacred material performed by one of its own, which has more street cred than fresh interpretations from someone outside the culture. At this stage in his career, it’d be easy to coast solely on standards, but Stanley prefers to keep it fresh and unpredictable while rendering everything as if it emanated from the mountain tradition. While there are standards like “Are You Washed in the Blood,” there are also rarities like “Prince of Peace.” Both hymns date back to the 1870s. There’s even black gospel, like “Lift Him Up, That’s All,” which was recorded by African-American farmer Washington Phillips in Dallas in 1927, and the better known “John the Revelator” waxed by Blind Willie Johnson in Atlanta three years later.

Some material is chronologically more contemporary, such as “I’ll Not Be Afraid” and “It’s Time To Wake Up” written by Alabama bluegrass gospel singer/songwriter Marvin Morrow. The title track about a mother’s unconditional faith comes from a familiar name in bluegrass, Ronnie Bowman of Lonesome River Band fame, and makes its recorded debut here. Also among the new material are “He Suffered For My Reward” written by grandson/rhythm guitarist Nathan Stanley, “Let Him Into Your Heart” by fellow Clinch Mountain Boy/fiddler Dewey Brown, and “That Wonderful Place” courtesy of sister-in-law Floda Neal. Other than the few tracks Ralph recorded for T-Bone Burnett and decades earlier as the Stanley Brothers, the rest of this material represents new ground.

Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys execute the arrangements flawlessly with a top-flight line-up that includes the sterling guitar work of James Alan Shelton. Although Stanley hasn’t played banjo publicly in years due to arthritis, his signature style is in good hands with Steve Sparkman, who has been a Clinch Mountain Boy since 1994. But what make these proceedings powerful is not necessarily the flashes of hot pickin’ but a few selections, like the eerie 19th century tragedy “Come All Ye Tenderhearted,” that are performed a cappella. Because Stanley’s voice is, well, wispy and frail, it provides a more personal, introspective ambience that conjures up images of being in a white, clapboard church having a one-on-one dialogue with the Almighty. Now, that’s testifying.

—Dan Willging (Denver, CO)

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