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The Stanley Brothers

An Evening Long Ago: Live '56 – 2004 (Columbia/DMZ/Legacy)

Reviewed by Brad San Martin

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CDs by The Stanley Brothers

In this post-O Brother era, the name Ralph Stanley is bandied about as a watchword of purity in roots music - so much in fact that the hasty prose of the ill informed has somewhat obscured the inventive qualities of the Stanley legacy. Hopefully this understated gem - along with the recent domestic issue of the duo's complete Mercury sides from around the same time - will remind folks of just how ingenious the Stanley Brothers' vision of bluegrass was.

The Stanleys harnessed the rhythmic throttle of Bill Monroe's over-driven stringband concept and imparted to it a spacious, yearning quality drawn from the aching modal music of their native Virginia. This informal session, previously available only sporadically on cassette, was recorded after hours at a Virginia radio station. With no audience (actual or broadcast), the brothers are somewhat more relaxed, and the spontaneity of the situation - coupled with engineer/producer Larry Erlich's request to "sing some of the old traditional songs" - leads the program to veer intriguingly from traditional tunes they rarely recorded to bluegrass standards and an occasional original.

There is a hushed ambience to it all: a spooky, almost tangible sense of night. Murder ballads like "Poor Ellen Smith" and the stunningly gruesome "The Story of the Lawson Family" benefit greatly from the setting. More driving numbers resonate equally, and frequent clawhammer banjo features make clear the Stanleys' firm attachment to pre-bluegrass music. Sound quality is surprisingly detailed for an old, informal recording, and the notation is fittingly spare: this is music that speaks for itself.