Sunday, 17 February 2013

The Stanley Brothers- Riding That Midnight Train

The Stanley Brothers are one of the all time great bluegrass duo's, their music held true to their Clinch Mountain origins, harmonies drawn from the Baptist tradition, rapid fire banjo picking and tales of loss, love and devotion. Once again it was the great Denys Williams from Hound Dogs who turned me onto these guys, and so I purchase the album Riding That Midnight Train which is a compilation of material they recorded for the Starday and King record labels between 1958 and 1961.

Carter and Ralph Stanley hailed from Dickenson County Virginia, which is nestled between the Kentucky and Tennessee borders. When they were young they moved to a small farm in the Clinch Mountain area near McClure Virginia. Like most aspiring musicians of that era the Grand Ole Opry provided the boys with their musical education. Following their service in WWII the boys settled in Bristol Tennessee where they were part of the Farm and Fun Time radio show for ten years. In between they recorded for a number of labels, all the while refining their style from mountain music to a bluesgrass style inspired by Bill Monroe. In 1958 they began to record concurrently for the Nashville based Starday label and Cincinatti based King record label. King Records had an interesting history, originally a famed hillbilly label that featured the great Delmore Brothers in the early 50's it started recording R&B artists like James Brown and Hank Ballard as well as country artists like Hawkshaw Hawkins and Moon Mullican.

The sessions from this period produced some of the most amazing bluegrass music you will hear, a great mixture of material that featured incredible harmonies and a real depth in their use of instrumentation. The brothers were backed by their group The Clinch Mountain Boys, most of these sessions featured Al Elliot on bass, Bill Napier on mandolin, fiddle player Joe Matthews and his brother Gene on guitar. Carter Stanley had a real soulful invoice that married perfectly with the high tenor register of his brother Ralph. Their version of I'm A Man of Constant Sorrow is a stark doleful tune that Carter makes his own, it's a story of a man cast out from his home to ramble and roam, no friends to help him out. He is totally isolated and viewed with suspicion the only peace he seeks to find is on God's golden shores. What is most striking about the song is the call and response style harmonies, that musical tradition that came out of the church adds an amazing depth to the song. She's More To Be Pitied is a bleak warning of what happens when too much time is spent inside a Honky Tonk.

She's more to be pitied than scolded
She needs to be loved not despised
Too much beer and wine, too many good times
The lure of a honky tonk wrecked her young life

The brothers and The Clinch Mountain boys really soar on the chorus, I love how they stretch out the word wine. Train 45 starts of with a demented fiddle solo sounding like a train whistle from the depths of hell, one of the brothers calls out Train 45 from Cincinatti Ohio, heading all points south! Ridin That Midnight Train has Ralph's quick as lightning banjo picking. It's one of the southern stories that I love, a lonesome wanderer escaping his blues on that midnight train, destination anywhere. The harmonies from the brothers reflect the mournful nature of the journey. The novelty How Far Too Little Rock became the biggest mainstream C&W hit that they ever had, crossing into the Top 20 in 1960. It's a great song where between rapid fire bursts of banjo and guitar the brothers embark on small humorous monologues. My Main Trial Is Yet To Come brings out the beauty of old time music, capturing it's tradition, the foibles of man and the final judgement of a higher power. As the man sits alone in his cold cell he reflects that his main trial has yet to come, even though he is to die in the electric chair it's his trial after his death that torments him. They capture this feeling again on Rank Stranger, a tale of a man returning to his mountain home and finding only strangers, his family and friends all gone, he is a total stranger they don't know his name and he doesn't recognise their faces. The classic Let The Church Roll On is a rather boisterous affair commenting on the sanctity of the church, I find the lyrics quite amusing,

Women in the church with paint on their face
Well what you gonna do
Take a rag and rub it off
Let The Church roll on

There is also an interesting cover of the Hank Ballard R&B classic Finger Poppin Time which has a nice funky guitar groove, they have no trouble with the more uptempo material. The Brothers would travel to King studios in Cincinatti for sessions but to keep the show on the road the band relocated to Florida to be part of Suwanee River Jamboree TV program, they would then travel to Magnum studios in Jacksonville to record. The brothers continued to record for King until Carter's death at the end of 1966, these years were captured on a follow up cd which I will review down the track.

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