87 years is a long time to live. To be a vital recording artist at that age is highly unusual, but that is what we find today when we consider Ralph Stanley.
Recorded last year- so more accurately 86 year old as a recording artist- "Side By Side" is a duet album recorded by Stanley and his son, Ralph Stanley II, and released this past February on Rebel Records. I purchased the album while on a spring break trip to Missouri, and it immediately went into regular rotation in the Fervor Coulee F-150.
It is the first time the two have stood, well, side by side in the studio as equals rather than as 'boss' and Clinch Mountain Boy. The selection of songs- four of which feature Ralph in strong, lead voice- are almost exclusively older and well-known: the album kicks off with Wild Bill Jones, goes Walking With You In My Dreams, asks Are You Waiting Just For Me, and concludes with I've Still Got 99.
The musicianship is classic sounding- fresh and relaxed with a professional sheen that doesn't get in the way of the emotions of the music. Clinch Mountain Boys alumni John Rigsby (fiddle and mandolin), Randall Hibbitts (bass), and Steve Sparkman (banjo) are the core band, with Two doing double duty on lead and rhythm guitar. Dr. Ralph lays out clawhammer-style on a solitary track, the appealing Battle Ax.
Doubting the senior Stanley's vocal capabilities? Don't. Instead, give Don't Weep for Me, or appreciate his excellent tenor contributions to any number of these songs including Don't Step Over An Old Love, Nobody Answered Me,or Carolina Mountain Home.
Two has become a fine singer in his own right, one of my favorites. If you haven't heard him before, also consider his album of a couple years back "Born To Be A Drifter." White & Pink Flowers is a sentimental weeper, while Dirty Black Coal is more my style. Start to finish, "Side By Side" is a superior album of bluegrass.
Perusing these song titles, it is readily apparent what Two and co-producer Rigsby had in mind- a celebration of the Stanley mountain music legacy. And they have pulled such off in a significant way.
My question is, Has anyone noticed?
Googling around a bit this week, I found only a handful of full reviews of this album. I may have missed them, but I don't recall seeing these songs on recent airplay charts. The various bluegrass discussion boards have either ignored the album entirely, or acknowledged it only in passing. There was an initial spurt of one-sheet rewrites back in February, and at least one insightful interview with Two published, but it certainly hasn't been highlighted to any other significant degree on the major bluegrass websites. I know some in my acquaintance weren't even aware the album was even released-admittedly, their bad.
All of which is a shame. "Side By Side," from where I'm sitting in central Alberta, is cause for celebration. We all know Ralph Stanley had planned on retiring this year, but with his continuing good health delaying that decision one of the last true 'first generation' bluegrass singers continues to make appearances. And his latest album is as good as anything- and certainly superior to some- he has recorded in the past twenty years.
I wonder if we are losing sight of what really matters when it comes to bluegrass. Information about the musicians is available to us like never before- if we don't get a Tweet about someone's daughter's graduation, we're reading another birth announcement. We get updates weekly about fiddle players we've never heard of either leaving or joining bands we haven't encountered. We can find the latest song by the 'next big thing' in seconds, but how often do we actually listen?
We hear more, read more, know more than ever before. But, have we forgot to listen? To contemplate and understand?
These are mighty great days to be a fan of bluegrass music. In our haste to glean a little of everything, let's not ignore those who got us here.
I would suggest that "Side By Side" should be added to everyone's summer listening list.