It’s somewhat surprising to learn from the accompanying press material that this is the first time Ralph Stanley and his son and former bandmate in the Clinch Mountain Boys, Ralph Stanley II, have ever shared equal billing on an album-length project. That said, Side By Side, despite the younger Stanley’s many vital contributions, is very much the elder Stanley’s album—as it should be, considering his towering stature in the bluegrass world. As such, it is a rich slice of grassroots Americana that’s heavily steeped in the spirit of mountain music or proto-bluegrass, which has long been the foundation of Ralph, Sr.’s rock-solid sensibilities.
The elder Ralph creates a mood of somber and sardonic verisimilitude when he sings ancient-sounding mountain folk narratives of violence and revenge, like the P.D. number “I’ve Still Got 99.” Particularly astounding is his mournful, yet stoic a cappella reading of “Don’t Weep For Me.” This fatalistic ballad sounds as old as the dark hills themselves, but was actually penned in modern times by Buddy Brock, Gerald Ellenburg, and Shawn Lane (the latter of Blue Highway fame). On the spirited traditional instrumental “Battle Ax,” the 87-year-old legend frails away on his clawhammer banjo for all he’s worth, as co-producer and multi-instrumentalist John Rigsby does double-duty (through the magic of overdubbing) providing lively mandolin and fiddle flourishes.
Ralph II, the other co-producer, is a fine singer in his own right, though his musical tastes at times tend to run toward more contemporary bluegrass and country influences. But throughout these 14 cuts, he has immersed himself in tradition while backing his legendary dad on harmony vocals and rhythm/lead guitar and singing some impressive lead vocal turns of his own. The younger Ralph sings a spot-on lead on “Dirty Black Coal” (an original from Ralph, Sr.’s voluminous catalog), while Stanley, Sr., provides haunting tenor harmonies. This same familial magic can be heard on nearly every other cut, including the Ernest Tubb oldie “Are You Waiting Just For Me,” Charlie Monroe’s sad “Walking With You In My Dreams,” a reprise of the A.P. Carter classic “Darling Little Joe,” and on a moving rendition of Albert Brumley’s lonesome “Nobody Answered Me.”
Listening to this impressive song collection leaves you hoping the Stanleys’ first full-length father-and-son outing won’t be their last. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.)BA