Shine On (Rebel)
The Stanley Brothers
Earliest Recordings: The Complete Rich-R-Tone 78s (1947-1952) (Rounder)
Despite its history as a slave song and its implications of ancient Christian persecution, "This Little Light of Mine" is most associated for many with Sunday School and the voices of children. Indeed, on his first studio album in three years, Ralph Stanley hurls himself into the song with all the vigor, enthusiasm and innocence of a child.
And why shouldn't he? What are Stanley's 78 years on Earth compared with the two centuries since "This Little Light of Mine" was written, or with the promised eternity he sings of in the other gospel songs, both new and ancient, that imbue Shine On with its infectious sense of joy?
That spirit is strongest on Shine On's most familiar songsnot just "This Little Light of Mine," but also "I'll Fly Away" and especially a bracing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" that takes as its musical setting the bare handclaps and able harmony voices of Stanley's backing group, the Clinch Mountain Boys. It's as if Stanley's intimate acquaintance with each lyric frees him to revel more fully in their primal expressions of faith and spiritual yearning, to throw his arms around them as he would a lifelong friend and erase any crack of daylight between singer and song.
That vitality is informed at all times by the splintery grain of Stanley's voice, which touches the songs with Old Testament gravity. That's never truer than on the handful of tracks ("The Old Church Yard," "Sing Songs About Jesus," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot") that Stanley tackles a cappella. Stanley has been using this method since the early 1970s, but the ensuing decades have hammered his keening tenor into a richer, bolder instrument, one whose crags and corners only add to its richness and resonance.
One such a cappella performance, his doomsday rendering of "O Death" on the blockbuster O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, gave Stanley an unlikely senior-years commercial breakthrough five years ago. Seizing the moment, O Brother producer T-Bone Burnett secured Stanley a major-label record deal and brought in hired hands to make 2002's Ralph Stanley, a pleasant but stiff album that felt too respectful for its own good. Shine On finds Stanley working again with his capable backup band (including his son, Ralph Stanley II), recording for bluegrass indie Rebel Recordsand the result sounds like a man finally loosening his tie after a medal ceremony.
True to that spirit, Shine On was recorded in tiny Big Stone Gap, Va., about 30 miles from Stanley's home in Clintwood and only about an hour from Bristol, Va., where Ralph and his late brother Carter Stanley made their first recordings in 1947. The 10 tracks the duo cut for Rich-R-Tone Records before signing with Columbia in 1949 (plus four more recorded after leaving the label in 1952) are collected on the new compilation Earliest Recordings. On these cuts, the Stanley Brothers' style is still inchoate and searching, hanging suspended between the mountain music of Appalachia and the futuristic bluegrass being beamed east from Nashville by Bill Monroe.
Sure enough, the most comfortable and charming of these tracks are the well-worn gospel songs from the Stanleys' very first session. "Death is Only a Dream" and "I Can Tell You the Time" find the brothers sweetly, hauntingly harmonizing, confident that they are drinking from a well that will never run dry. Five decades later, Shine On suggests it still hasn't.
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