Thanks to his recent Grammy, the amazing O Brother phenomenon and the groundswell of Ralphmania that followed, the younger Stanley Brother today enjoys unprecedented popularity. He’s selling records and tickets, while earning major awards for current work and lifetime achievements. Stanley doesn’t forget the source of the butter for his bread; he renders here both his number from O Brother, “Oh Death,” as well as “Man of Constant Sorrow” (the Soggy Bottom Boys version used in the film is based on his arrangement).
Now that Stanley has legions of fans who’ve yet to experience him live in concert, this record makes total sense. Recorded last year during his annual winter visit to Los Angeles, Live At McCabe’s Guitar Shop straightforwardly captures a typical Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys performance. After 56 years of touring, Stanley’s shows have their own rituals, and mutual expectations between them and their audiences. Much as with The Grateful Dead, this makes the shows comforting, affirming, and ultimately addictive.
What is it about Stanley: the irresistible mountain soulfulness of his singing? The insistent old-time dance rhythms of the instrumental pieces? The sense of being at a show that could have just as easily occurred 50 years ago? Or something else altogether? Even though Live At McCabe’s Guitar Shop could have showcased Stanley’s banjo playing more, the album is still remarkable for conveying just how his music can get under your skin.