Almost Home

Ralph Stanley

Rebel Records, 1992

REVIEW BY: Curtis Jones


Ralph Stanley has made a name for himself after over sixty years in the music business, from regional popularity with his brother Carter as the Stanley Brothers, and after Carter's death, continuing as Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys to higher fame and even Grammy awards as part of the soundtrack to the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou.  This group has at one time or another contained several well-known bluegrass names such as Larry Sparks and Charlie Sizemore, as well as the better-known country names as Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley.

Almost Home is an album that must be appreciated for what it is: an example of a style of Appalachian religious music that is fast disappearing. It also offers some tracks that were recorded in the early ‘70s with Skaggs and Whitley, as well as ones recorded in the early ‘90s when the album was released. The album is not bluegrass in any sense except for the fact that a bluegrass group is singing it.  Instead it contains all a cappella arrangements of religious songs, many of which are still sung in small mountain churches today.  Ralph comes from a Primitive Baptist background which shines through in song selection and also in the method of singing.  In many Primitive Baptist churches in Appalachia, musical instruments are forbidden, and where hymnals are used, they contain only lines of lyrics with no musical notation. In other Primitive Baptist churches there are no hymn books. Instead a song leader will call out the upcoming phrase of a song in a half sung/spoken cadence and then congregation will sing that phrase all together in the song's melody.  This is vital information to know, because several songs on Almost Home are presented in this "lined out" manner. It can make songs protracted and sometimes tedious, especially if you know all the words to a song already, but it is a form of music that hearkens back to the days before recorded music and when small mountain churches could not afford multiple hymnals. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The album opens with a common old time quartet song, "God Put A Rainbow In The Clouds," which is an excellent example of the raspy high mountain tenor that makes Ralph Stanley so distinctive – even if he does sound a tad flat on some of the held out notes in this particular song. "The Old Ship Of Zion" is a song that is more famous on the Southern gospel circuit but is wonderfully produced here in its richest a cappella form.

"Almost Home" is the first example of the lined out format, although the choice to sing the verses in the standard form and the refrains in the lined out form is strange.  Ostensibly, a congregation singing this song in this style would be more familiar with the words to a refrain than with those of the verses. So it would make more sense to line call verses and sing out the chorus.  Nevertheless, this track encapsulates the struggles of Christian life in a sinful world and the importance of perseverance.

"Thy Will Be Done" is the first full on example of the lined out form. It is also one of the older selections on the album. Listen closely on this track and you will hear Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley. These two also appear on "Old Village Church Yard" another lined out song lamenting a mother's death. "Old Village Church Yard" is often cited as a standout on the album by other reviewers, but the line call becomes monotonous and the many verses stretch the song beyond five minutes, which is unusual for bluegrass and bluegrass gospel recordings. You also have to have an appreciation for the sappy mother themes in order to enjoy it. I have never understood the mother songs that slink their way through the bluegrass gospel music tradition.  It is strange that on albums that otherwise praise God, there are these songs that put mother up just as high as Jesus.  But it is a taste that many enjoy, especially those who love old time bluegrass.

Other standouts on Almost Home are "I'll Live In Glory" one of the few faster numbers on the album, although it seems disjointed at times with the lead singer going too fast for the rest of the quartet. "It's Heaven On Earth To Walk With The Lord," while slow, evokes the purpose and joy of Christian living and "They Shall Walk With Me In White" encapsulates the vision of the great number that John saw around the throne in the book of Revelation.  There is also an excellent version of "Jerusalem My Happy Home" which is a song that has existed in many forms since the 1500s.

Primitive Baptist songs are often considered negative and depressing because they contain a note of the lowliness of man's existence and the unworthiness of his ability to commune with God.  Yet the selections on Almost Home present this Calvinist flavor while also glorying in the hope of redemption.  That, along with the lined out examples of mountain church singing and Ralph Stanley's first generation bluegrass voice make this an enjoyable and unique listen.

Rating: B

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