The singing voice of Ralph Stanley, who recently celebrated his 74th birthday, is frequently described as “harrowing,” “raw” and “primitive,” bearing witness to more than 50 years of use. One of the wonderful aspects of Man of Constant Sorrow is its reminder that the reigning patriarch of bluegrass music was once a younger man who, in his prime, sang with an effortless exuberance.
In the wake of Stanley’s appearance on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, Man of Constant Sorrow assembles 13 of his classic recordings from the past 30 years, five of them available on CD for the first time. If you’re not patient enough to ‘rassle with a record player (or old enough to own one), this might be your first opportunity to contrast the 1977 recording of “Oh, Death,” included here with the recent recording used in the Coen Brothers’ film. While the latter is craggy enough to send chills up your spine, the former–though equally heartfelt–is curiously joyful, a defining trait of bluegrass at its best.
Three of the other newly reissued selections: “I Am Weary (Let Me Rest),” “Calling My Children Home” and “I’ve Just Seen the Rock of Ages” are stirring songs of faith, while “Dream of a Miner’s Child” hauntingly tugs the heartstrings. In contrast, Stanley’s signature clawhammer turns, at the forefront of “Rocky Island” and “Little Birdie,” inject the tunes with a sense of freewheeling fun.
Technically, the CD is a delight: Both the guitar and banjo ring like bells, and the mandolin, fiddle and bass, sometimes muddy sounding on vinyl, are rendered with stunning clarity. The running time of 34 minutes, however, is a less welcome reminder of the compilation’s LP origins; we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with not having to get up and turn it over in the middle. Although it’s entitled Man of Constant Sorrow, this compilation is fine career sampling from a bluegrass legend that just seems to get better with age.
Stanley is playing the Garner Auditorium Saturday, March 17.