Man of Constant Sorrow

Ralph Stanley

CB Music, 2015

REVIEW BY: Curtis Jones


Ralph Stanley has made a lot of hay out of the track “Man Of Constant Sorrow.”  Before the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou movie was released, he was just one of dozens of artists who had performed the song.  Now, he has taken it on as a mantra, pushing his own newer versions of the song and using it as the title to his autobiography.  And in January of 2015, he released it again, this time as Ralph Stanley And Friends: A Man Of Constant Sorrow.  This album features a series of duets with many other household name musicians, including some you might not expect to find cavorting with an octogenarian banjo picker from southwestern Virginia.

The album mixes the secular and the gospel, like many of Stanley’s albums have. The first track is a classic gospel track “We Shall Rise” with the smooth baritone-voiced country star Josh Turner. Lee Ann Womack comes on with a powerful and heartfelt version of “White Dove.” Stanley’s grandson Nathan Stanley joins him with the Stanley Brothers classic “Rank Stranger,” in which the younger Stanley does a fine job of channeling Ralph’s late brother Carter, who used to sing the lead on the song decades ago.  “Pig In A Pen,” featuring Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, is a superb example of Appalachian artistry: humble lyrics, solid harmonies, and claw hammer style banjo picking. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

There are also a couple tracks that can raise eyebrows. Elvis Costello joins Dr. Stanley on a solid version of “Red Wicked Wine.” Costello for one seems very at ease in his role on the bluegrass track, and the two pull off a classic sounding duet. The strangest track is a haunting version of “Two Coats” with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant. This one is a head scratcher, because Plant and Stanley do not mix well at all on this. Plus, the track is slowed down even beyond its usual slow pace in order to create a haunting, drone-like quality. The song is an old and powerful gospel tune, sung in minor harmony, and one that Stanley first recorded decades ago.  But this version misses the mark and only gets points for placing Plant in such a strange context. Other notable tracks include “I Only Exist” with country star Dierks Bentley. On this, Bentley really sounds like he is trying too hard to sound soulful. “Hills Of Home” is a sad reminiscence from Stanley to his long dead brother and musical partner, Carter, who passed away in 1966.

Even though Ralph has now stopped touring actively, it is great to see him still active in recording. Ralph Stanley And Friends: Man Of Constant Sorrow should help keep his legacy alive, and releasing it through the Cracker Barrel chain restaurant will direct it at an audience that is likely to appreciate his many contributions to Americana music.

Rating: B+

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