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The Stanley Brothers
The Definitive Collection

Review By Steven Stone
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  When asked if he plays bluegrass music, Dr. Ralph Stanley is quick to say, "No, I play mountain music." But despite what Stanley professes to play, the Stanley Brothers' repertoire is one of the lynchpins of bluegrass. Ralph's music career began shortly after World War II when he formed the Clinch Mountain Boys with his brother Carter. They were part of a country tradition of brother duos that includes Bill and Charlie Monroe and Ira and Charlie Louvin. Although the Stanley Brothers haven't performed together for over forty years, their influence over contemporary bluegrass is still felt. On this new 3-CD collection you can hear 60 reasons why the Stanley Brothers are still so important.

Older brother Carter played guitar, sang lead and wrote most of the Stanley Brothers' original material while younger brother Ralph played banjo and sang tenor. Their first band also included pioneering mandolinist "Pee Wee" Lambert, whose driving alternating string solos were a strong influence on Jesse McReynold's cross-picking style. The band roster over the years included included many fine musicians such as guitarist George Shuffler (who began on bass), fiddlers Lester Woodie, Charlie Cline, Curly Ray Cline, Joe Meadows, Ralph Mayo, and Art Stamper, and mandolinists Curly Seckler, Bill Napier, Curly Lambert and Bobby Osborne.

Since the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe were contemporaries, often playing the same venues, there couldn't help but be some competition between the two bands (for three months in 1951 Carter Stanley actually left the Stanley Brothers and played with Bill Monroe.) On the first disc of the anthology you can hear how the Carters jazzed up Bill Monroe's classic "Blue Moon of Kentucky." They added a boogie-woogie beat as well as a doo-wop vocal style that almost burlesques Monroe's straitlaced original. Few of their contemporaries had as broad a range of musical styles and covered as many types of music as the Stanley Brothers. They performed acappella gospel songs, fiddle tunes, honky tonkin' romps, and, of course, murder ballads. On The Definitive Collection we finally can hear the full range of the Stanley Brothers' output. Their versions of old standards including "The Orange Blossom Special" (here called simply "Orange Blossom"), "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem", and "Pretty Polly" all have a special twist that defines the Stanley Brothers' style. While not as hard driving as Monroe or Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanleys had a certain down home funk and grit that kept them from sounding too slick or superficial. Even now their versions of classics including "Cotton Eyed Joe" and "Nobody's Business" have a very contemporary feel.

As you might expect of an anthology that covers the Stanley Brothers' entire recorded output, the quality of the recordings varies drastically. Many of the cuts were taken from 78 recordings so the music comes out of a bed of background ticks and pops. Still, considering the quality of many of the sources. The re-mastering engineers (I'd give them credit, but my pre-release discs lack that info) did a remarkable job of preserving as much of the music as possible. Some of the songs, such as Bill Monroe's "Molly and Tenbrook" (called "Molly and Tenbook" on the liner notes) were recorded during live performances probably made originally for radio broadcast. These sound very good indeed. No, they won't be confused with modern recordings, but all the music is there, and on a good system you can hear every part clearly.

Hardcore bluegrass fans probably already have much of the material on The Definitive Collection in their music libraries. But even if you have a lot of Stanley Brothers material this comprehensive set has a lot to offer new masterings, complete notes, and just enough new previously unreleased recordings from live shows to make purchase worthwhile. For anyone without any Stanley Brothers recordings, buying this CD set is a no-brainer. You ain't no kind of serious bluegrasser without a firm grounding in the Stanley Brothers. Are the Stanley Brothers as essential as Bill Monroe? You betcha!

 

 

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