By the time Ralph Stanley released Michigan Bluegrass on the independent Jessup label in 1971, he was well into establishing the second phase of his career. A twenty year run as half the Stanley Brothers had ended with the passing of his older brother Carter in 1966, but barely missing a beat, he reincarnated the Clinch Mountain Boys, continued to release records for King, and added releases on Rebel, Jalyn and Jessup. His connection with the latter was brief, comprising just two albums recorded in five weeks in 1971, and released in ‘71 and ‘73. The albums were previously reissued as Echoes of the Stanley Brothers, but are augmented here by ten additional tracks drawn from Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs’ contemporaneous Tribute to the Stanley Brothers.
Whitley and Skaggs were backed by the Clinch Mountain Boys for their album, and after being invited to join the group, the album was reissued under Ralph Stanley’s name. This 2-CD set opens with ten of the tribute album’s twelve tracks (omitting “White Dove” and “The Angels Are Singing Tonight”), with, according to the Colin Escott’s well-researched liner notes, Stanley leaving the banjo parts to Roy Lee Centers. Whitley and Skaggs delved deep into the Stanley Brothers catalog, showing off the encyclopedic knowledge that had originally caught Ralph Stanley’s ear. The songs of loss, longing and loneliness are highlighted by an unusual murder-suicide in “Little Glass of Wine.” The stereo production is clean and spacious, with the fiddle, mandolin, guitar and bass crisply arrayed around the tight, sorrowful lead harmonies.
In the summer of 1971, after a live outing and a pair of albums for Rebel, Stanley took his band into Jessup’s Jackson, Michigan studio. The first of his two Jessup albums features a trove of then-new material, including a pair of socially conscious songs by Gene Duty. “Let’s Keep Old Glory Waving” is straightforwardly prideful, but the opening “Are You Proud of America” digs deeper with its questioning of those who question America. Wendy Smith contributed “River Underground,” a murder ballad in which the protagonist ends up haunted by guilt rather than jailed or dead. Joyce Morris’ “Another Song, Another Drink” gains an extra shade of sadness in the retrospective light of lead vocalist Keith Whitley’s untimely death, and the album’s instrumentals, “Hulla Gull” and “Buckwheat,” highlight the band’s musical talent.
Five weeks later, the group was back in Jessup’s studio to record an album of gospel material drawn from the Stanley Brothers catalog. In addition to traditional material given the Stanley treatment, the songs include Ruby Rakes’ “Wings of Angels” and J.L. Frank and Pee Wee King’s “My Main Trail is Yet to Come.” The former looks forward to heavenly salvation, while the latter finds a condemned man awaiting his eternal sentence. The vocals are at turns forlorn and praiseful as they essay family, faith, loss and sorrow, mourning those who’ve passed and anticipating reunion in the hereafter. Stanley said that vocalist Roy Lee Centers “had the gift,” and it’s in full evidence here amid the revitalized group. Real Gone’s 2-CD set is a real treat for fans of bluegrass, gospel and the Stanley Brothers. [©2016 Hyperbolium]