Mountain Preacher’s Child – Ralph Stanley
There is no larger figure in the post-O Brother, Where Art Thou? bluegrassophere than Ralph Stanley. It is his version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” that ignited the flame on that whacked-out version of Ulysses via the Coen Brothers and it his continuing legacy that moves his work from wandering journeyman to inspired icon status. Stanley turns 80 this year and upon the occasion, he has released a series of grass-tinged gospel tunes recorded with his monolithic band, the Clinch Mountain Boys from 1975-1985. The kick to this gift is that all of the tracks have heretofore been unreleased. And lest one thinks that the material may appear dated, remember Stanley is a king in the land of Old, Weird America and these sorts of spiritual numbers ain’t quite from any particular time, let alone the synth/drum machine vomitorium otherwise known as the ’80s.
Let’s cut to the quickin the middle of this 14-track feast of surreal gospel cathedral music, Stanley and the Boys break into “Just Over the Stars,” which features a tricky time signature and a hook laced with tales of that “angel band just over the stars,” before the scene shifts into beautiful timelessnessan a cappella version of “I Wear the White Robe” has the skin crawling with sacred goose bumps while the lump in the throat grows, immediately followed by “The God That Never Falls.” One can almost see a hopped-up Jerry Garcia plucking along on banjo while David Grisman sings about that “old-time religion” as “The Little Old Church by the Road,” waltzes at a comfortable pace that gathers all of the spirituality into one old rucksack on the journey back home. “Go Down Moses” is also sung a cappella and features a cascading dual vocal which both combine and echo lines from an Old Testament God placed on the weighty shoulders of Moses.
There is a profound respect for forces greater than oneself within the lines of this music and one can almost see through space into an ethereal expanse where good deeds are forever linked with cosmic karma. Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys have offered a long-delayed treat with this batch of spirituality and not a moment too soon. Church hasn’t sounded this good in quite some timesome time far, far away in a grassy field not too distant but always on the periphery of one’s existential soul.