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Ralph Stanley

Ralph Stanley – 2002 (DMZ)

Reviewed by Rick Bell

It's as if Ralph Stanley is releasing his debut. Backed by industry heavyweights, a new record label debuts their star-in-the-making with a producer who surrounds their hat-wearing singer with a who's-who of Nashville studio pickers on an album title bearing simply his name.

Except, this rising star is Ralph Stanley. The bluegrass legend, about 75, has spent the better part of 6 decades picking and singing with his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys. He's a hat act all right, but not your prototypical pre-packaged, research-tested, toothy singer who unstraps his guitar by the third song of a concert. Stanley's "debut" kicks off DMZ, the new record label of "O Brother, Where Art Thou" producers Joel and Ethan Coen and the soundtrack's producer, T Bone Burnett. Debuting with Stanley, however, gives a clear indication that the label will maintain some pretty high, though admittedly eclectic standards. Stanley is plucked from the familiar surroundings of his Clinch Mountain Boys, and though there's a sputter or two, the musicianship and vocals are true to form.

A bit more introspective and subdued, perhaps, than a Clinch Mountain Boys record, the 10 traditional standards - 2 are a capella in the vein of "O, Death" - and 1 new song cover familiar territory - love lost, murder - and, of course, gospel numbers. Fittingly, the bare-bones accompaniment provides more of a backdrop for Stanley's weathered tenor. Guitarist Norman Blake and Mike Compton on mandolin, however, do break out for a couple nice runs, especially the interplay on "Look on and Cry." Major label backing will no doubt add more punch to Stanley's run of success. But even he has to admit this new-found stardom thing is a lot of fun.