Don Rigsby "Doctor's Orders: A Tribute to Ralph Stanley"
Far from being yet another hackneyed tribute album, "Doctor's Orders: A Tribute to Ralph Stanley" is a robust, thoughtful compendium revealing the legendary mountain singer's influence over several generations of bluegrass singers.
Produced by Don Rigsby, a vocalist whose prominence within the bluegrass world has strangely never netted him a Male Vocalist of the Year nod from the IBMA, "Doctor's Orders" is both unexpected and appreciated.
The unexpected comes from the song selection. Outside of Little Maggie, few of the songs chosen would have been on a list I would have predicted for inclusion. Rather than going with the most familiar songs- Little Birdie, Pretty Polly, Oh Death, Man of Constant Sorrow, Dream of A Miner's Child, or Rank Stranger, to suggest six- Rigsby has instead dug into the vinyl stacks to come up with a cross-section of songs that is surprisingly diverse.
The appreciated elements are numerous and varied.
There is the sacred- Sinner Man, Traveling the Highway Home, and Walking Up This Hill on Decoration Day- and the pitiful- The Water Lily and I Only Exist- as well as the wistful- Home in the Mountains, Wild Geese Cry Again, and Six More Miles. What each of these songs have in common is the timeless quality of their themes, melodies, and lyrics.
Rigsby relies heavily on a pair of Clinch Mountain Boys for instrumental accompaniment. James Alan Shelton (guitar) and Steve Sparkman (banjo) appear more often than they don't, providing contemporary perspectives and connections to the music. The stellar and still incredibly under-appreciated Ron Stewart provides the fiddling while Barry Bales (Alison Krauss & Union Station) lays out the bass. That these four are each top-tier bluegrass talents hardly requires mentioning.
Charlie Sizemore provides additional Clinch Mountain history, singing on a pair of songs, lead on Walking Up This Hill on Decoration Day and taking the chorus on Tennessee Truck Driving Man, a song that also features Clinch Mountain Boy alumnus Ricky Skaggs. Finally, a third bluegrass legend who got his start at a Clinch Mountain Boy, Larry Sparks, joins in on I Only Exist. The good doctor himself appears vocally on two tracks, most significantly on The Daughter of Geronimo, while also providing the banjo for the set closing Traveling The Highway Home.
Additionally, Rigsby's Midnight Call bandmates make select vocal and instrumental appearances, closing the circle.
This is an inspiring set as it reveals to casual bluegrass listeners the depth of the extensive Stanley catalogue, and does so through uniformly impressive performances: words like 'vital' and 'consequential' spring to mind.
As part of my research, I assembled a playlist of the Stanley performances of twelve of these thirteen Stanley songs; even within my extensive collection of Stanley music, I could only locate a Ralph II performance of Tennessee Truck Driving Man. Listening to the music of "Doctor's Orders" intermingled with the original performances was revealing.
It is obvious that Rigsby and his compatriots examined these songs intently, not content to simply copy the performances found on various Rebel, King, Freeland, and Plantation albums. Rather, they have enlivened the sounds of the past, providing a modern spark to classic songs, and some under-the-radar gems.
The album's sole original song is from Larry Cordle and Rigsby, a tune that rises far above simple novelty. The Mountain Doctor lightheartedly yet thoughtfully and respectfully includes several familiar Stanley tags, revealing the medicinal qualities of listening and living 'The Stanley Sound,' while advising "go see the mountain doctor anytime you got the blues."
If "Doctor's Orders: A Tribute to Ralph Stanley" isn't in the running when Album of the Year nominees are announced, and if Don Rigsby isn't included in the Male Vocalist category, I will be plum disappointed. "Doctor's Orders: A Tribute to Ralph Stanley" is powerfully executed bluegrass.