Last year, when bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley accepted Jim Lauderdale’s invitation to record a duet, he got a tape of the song from the Nashville-based songwriter and performer. Lauderdale had already set a particular arrangement for the tune, but when Stanley heard it, he thought the song should go a little differently. So he worked up a new version with his band, The Clinch Mountain Boys.
When he arrived in the studio, he told Lauderdale as much. “We kind of picked it up a little bit,” Stanley said. To illustrate, he raised his banjo and gathered together his band. The musicians locked into a perfectly tuned version of the song, packing it with deep feeling and stark mountain soul. “After hearing it once,” says Lauderdale, “I said, ‘Yeah, that’s it. That’s the one.’ ”
The following day, Stanley returned the favor: He asked Lauderdale to record another duet with The Clinch Mountain Boys, this time covering an old Stanley Brothers tune. That song, “If I Lose,” is one of many highlights on Clinch Mountain Country, a double CD of duets that comes out this week. The 36-song collection draws largely from the Stanley Brothers’ monumental catalog while pairing Stanley with a lengthy list of musical luminariessome famous, some not.
On the whole, the results don’t quite equal the mythic magic of the Stanley Brothers’ classic workan elementally American sound that can never be duplicated. Taken on its own, however, Clinch Mountain Country is a bountiful collection that taps into the pinched, primitive power of great mountain music.
Too often, duet albums honoring a living legend fall short of their goal. Usually, the guests don’t live up to the challenge, or the music succumbs to polite reverence or over-the-top egotism. But the 71-year-old Stanley is too willful and too constant in his artistry to bow to his guests. Instead, he and his band do what they do, and it’s up to the guests to rise to the occasion. Most come through shiningly, inspired by the company and by the opportunity to let it fly with such untamed spirit. Indeed, many of the guests present stirring performances that rank with the most accomplished work of their careers.
Not everyone makes the cut. Bob Dylan may be a Stanley Brothers devotee, but a bluegrass singer he is not. For the most part, those born to the mountains fare best: Patty Loveless (“Pretty Polly”), Rhonda Vincent (“I’ll Take the Blame”), Dwight Yoakam (“I Just Got Wise”), and Ricky Skaggs (“Shouting on The Hills of Glory”) all offer outstanding contributions.
But many others are notable: The Kentucky HeadHunters’ Doug Phelps, who began his career in bluegrass, blazes through a ferociously fast version of “Pig in a Pen,” and Hal Ketchum’s sweet, strong tone matches up wonderfully with Stanley’s astringent tenor on “How Mountain Girls Can Love.” Connie Smith, Vern Gosdin, Gillian Welch, Marty Stuart, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, John Anderson, and The Isaacs also come through with outstanding cuts, while those by George Jones, Kathy Mattea, BR5-49, The Whites, Tim O’Brien, and others are worth a listen.
In truth, those wanting to gain an appreciation for the Stanley Brothers’ legacy would do best to go back and hear the originals. But Clinch Mountain Country bestows a fine honor on a legendary elder. Judiciously recasting these songs shows how well and how timelessly they stand up, even when heard in a different world than the one in which they were created.
Stanley celebrates the release of the album with a May 27 performance at the Station Inn; the show is a monthly installment in an ongoing concert series sponsored by No Depression magazine.
Since he can’t perform with his heroes Mozart or Paganini, fiddle great and basketball fanatic Mark O’Connor says his biggest thrill would be to slam dunk over Michael Jordan. O’Connor has no chance of beating Jordan in the paintthe 6-foot, 4-inch violinist admits that he can’t even dunk a basketball. But in his chosen field, there’s no doubt that he’s tops: Prior to his retirement from country music in 1991, he won every bluegrass and country honor within reach. But since then, he has managed a remarkable feathe has emerged as a celebrated concert violinist. Even Jordan never quite managed this sort of career success as a baseball player.
What’s more, O’Connor has proven himself a noteworthy composer as well, having had his works performed by such virtuosi as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Gil Shaham. His 1993 fiddle concerto, which weds classical and folk-based idioms, has been performed 130 times, making it one of the most played violin concertos since World War II. Earlier this month, O’Connor premiered his “Fiddle Sonata,” a work commissioned by the Library of Congress, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
O’Connor isn’t about to slow down either. This Tuesday at Caffé Milano, he celebrates the release of his solo debut for the Sony Classical label, Midnight on the Water.
The Lovin’ Feelings concert hits the Nashville Arena Saturday night. No doubt, baby boomers will be heading downtown to see Jan and Dean, The Temptations, Ben E. King, Gary Puckett, and Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals. But I can’t let this oldies-radio-sponsored event go by without expressing some dismay at just how boring oldies radio has become. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, rock ’n’ roll was rife with sex, danger, and excitement, but these days the oldies format trades more on nostalgia, confining the broad spectrum of American pop music largely to Motown, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. Hell, in the northeast, such stations at least manage to incorporate a healthy dose of doo-wop into their playlists.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still tune in to 96.3 FM, because eventually the station will play a killer song by J.J. Jackson, or Major Lance, or the Count Five. But most of the time, my finger is poised on the scan button. Unfortunately, scanning isn’t really an option at a live music eventand as far as I can tell, this concert guarantees retreads of the same tunes we keep hearing week after week on Oldies 96.3. (Believe me, I’d be perfectly happy if I never heard Gary Puckett’s “Young Girl” again.)
It’s a shame, because some seasoned artists have proven that their music can still be vital and exciting in the ’90s. Link Wray’s recent local performances mixed the swagger of his original recordings with the raw potency of The Ramones. And the Everly Brothers’ triumphant show at the Ryman proved their legacy is much broader and greater than what oldies stations would have you believe. But then, that’s probably why these artists are able to command headlining showsand clearly they’ve got more sense than to lump themselves in with a package tour of formula hitmakers.
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