2014-07-24 16.48.04

I dreamed about Ralph Stanley the day after he died. I was feeling ill. I crawled into bed and fell into a deep sleep. Over the years, I had visited his hometown a few times, circling to and fro across the caustic back roads of Clinch Mountain. I had once stopped at his house and knocked on his front door, hoping to shake the good doctor’s hand. No one came to the porch but a wandering dog. I read his book, bought his records. And I had stood before his brother’s grave, atop a mountain in the afternoon hours.

I saw Dr. Ralph on stage a number of times in those final years as well. He needed a chair to sit through those sets. His grandson and his band would do most of the work. But every so often he would stand up, he would approach the microphone, and he would drown the audience in that chilling mountain voice.

The dream was short. I found myself in some ghostly façade of the Appalachian south. My family was there. We rode bikes on roads that were too wide and too straight. I don’t remember if Dr. Ralph had even showed up in the dream—only that his essence hovered around it all. I parked my bike at the foot of the Ralph Stanley Museum. It was not the great Victorian house that sits on a hill in Clintwood, Virginia, but a lonely cabin on the side of a highway.

The dream came and the dream went.

I think I experience Dr. Ralph’s music a little differently than most of his fans. I admire the union of voices that the Stanley Brothers created when they sang, the craftsmanship of those bluegrass melodies, but really, I’ve never been much for bluegrass. And as important as his claw hammer banjo is to American roots music, it doesn’t give me pause, or hit me on the head like John Henry’s hammer. With Stanley, it has always been the cold hard lonesomeness that speaks to me. It is that voice, full of Primitive Baptist severity that I won’t forget.

Everything I love about Dr. Ralph comes to a crescendo of Appalachian simplicity on the traditional gospel ballad “Two Coats”. On the closing song from 1972’s Cry from the Cross, a lonesome fiddle floats along on a minor rhythm. Stanley’s voice is as serious as ever. He sings of salvation, of throwing off the old coat of worldly degradation and putting on a new, holy one. He pulls no punches. He adds no flourish or poetry. It’s the aesthetic by which he lived his life. What choice do we have but to believe every word of it?

The dream has since faded. The mountain and the road and the cabin on the hill are gone. Dr. Ralph is gone.

I hope that someday I will knock on a front door and someone will answer. I hope that someday, some light can be shed upon the fractured dream that we all walk around in. And I hope that Dr. Ralph has thrown off the old coat, and that the man of constant sorrow will sorrow no more.

 

Information gathered from Stanley’s autobiography, “Man of Constant Sorrow”.

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lenny

This is an older review of the Lenny Smith’s Who Was and Is and Is To Come, originally posted on this site in July of 2012:

It’s been an odd couple of weeks, what with hurricanes sweeping through cities and towns, politicians battling over the fate of the world, rumors of wars and so forth.  Waters have risen and subsided.  Lights have dimmed and become alive again.  Doomsday prophets and naysayers abound, as they always have, and more will come I’m sure.

Amidst it all, there arrives the new Lenny Smith album, Who Was and Is and Is To Come (released on Great Comfort Records), a mix of 60s style folk and rock tunes inspired by the artist’s lifelong search of an unknown Creator.  In stark contrast to the turmoil of the times, Smith enters quietly.  Gently fingerpicking a sparse folk melody, drawing upon his many hours of scripture reading, Smith sings the first song he ever wrote,

Then I saw a new Heaven— and a new Earth, the New Jerusalem.

As a young seminary student in the 1960s, Smith would hide in the closet at night, writing songs and reading scripture.  The strange poetry of Revelation and its pronouncement of a New Jerusalem struck a deep chord.

God Himself will wipe every tear from their eyes

and death shall be no more.

As the album progresses, we get glimpses of Smith at different stages of his journey, from the theology obsessed student putting melodies to the psalms (“As a Doe Longs for Running Streams”), to the wizened grandfather looking back on all he’s learned (“All the Earth Worships You”).

You are the love I feel inside

And Your love won’t be denied…

Smith’s words are void of brimstone.  His ruminations are simple, sometimes hushed, as he beckons to hear that still, small voice.  But the journey isn’t just about introspection.   It’s about celebration.  Along the way, his many friends, children and grandchildren join in, elatedly plucking strings, playing keys and shouting along in joyous unity.

There is something very fitting about it all.  While so many are calling down fire from heaven, eagerly awaiting a swift vengeance, Smith is gently up turning evidence of his Maker in the quiet spaces; beneath sheets of darkness and layers of corrosion; in the trees and rocks, and inside of his very soul.  “The earth”, he writes in the liner notes, “knows something”.  These are words of reconciliation and healing that we could all use right now.

Who Was and Is and Is To Come is available at http://lennysmith.bandcamp.com/

bright

This is an older review of the Wonderful Mountain’s “Bright Week”, originally posted on this site in July of 2013.

At the beginning of his new album, Bright Week, Chad Marine (a.k.a. the Wonderful Mountain) sings of Saint Antony, the patron of lost things and people. Over a rushed guitar strum, the artist sings,

I fell into the flood

In body and in blood

And I came up bright.

Though the words are profound and spoken with outright seriousness, the song borders on joviality (a far stretch from Marine’s previous work), but I suspect it’s with good reason.  He says that the album coincided with his Baptism through the Eastern Orthodox Church.  The songs seem to reflect that Baptism, and the pilgrimage that led to it.  They are populated by holy Saints of the tradition, by moments of spiritual clarity, and by a renewed sense of joy.  He says that there was nothing specific tying the songs together, but listening to them, I can hear themes of rebirth and restoration (and the joy that follows) written all over it.

He translates the tale of martyred Saint Catherine and the paranormal destruction of a torture wheel into a rousing folk number that sounds like a lost Carter Family song.  He draws inspiration from the old story of the righteous pelican that wounded herself to feed her young.  The stories are ancient, passed down for generations, but they’re full of spiritual vigor and brimming with holy relevance.

There has always been a heavy sense of impending righteousness in Marine’s songs, and though it’s still here, his focus has turned to something that’s, well, brighter.   Near the end of the album, perhaps guided home by Saint Antony himself, the artist casts off the pessimism of the world and sheds that unholy darkness that so easily binds us.  He gently beckons,

Let’s sing no more songs of hopelessness…

Amazing what a little divine perspective can do.

Bright Week can be found at https://thewonderfulmountain.bandcamp.com/album/bright-week

Benjamin

It’s easy to sink into indifference. Looking out upon a world drenched in blood and smoke, it’s tempting to turn your back—to hitch a first class ticket onto a gospel train bound for Glory, while the world is left to smolder along the track. That is why it’s necessary to have a folk singer like David Benjamin Blower around. Blower follows a long line of prophets and protest singers—from Elijah to Woody Guthrie—who shift our gaze outward, to the greed and exploitation that burns in the world. His latest record, Welcome the Stranger, is immediate and fierce, drawing on the empirical imagery of the Old and New Testaments, and the Dust Bowl tunes of Guthrie, reminding us all that the world didn’t get better after the dust of the Great Depression settled. He sings of the displaced and the refugee, giving voice to their hardship. He sings with love, with brutality, and with anger, using his guitar and voice as a jackhammer to smash through the apathy of our age.

You can listen to and purchase the album at https://benjaminblower.bandcamp.com/

All proceeds from the record will go to charities working directly with refugees.

cover

The song was alive. It had travelled harsh seas and long roads. From the highlands of Scotland, it voyaged on rickety ships to the fog engulfed mountains of Appalachia. It was strummed on a handmade guitar, before it made its way down the mountain, into some parlor room where a quartet of well-to-dos sang it slow and mournfully. From time to time, it may have stood at the precipice of life and death, reflecting on its mortality. It had witnessed its brothers and sisters fade into the mountain fog. It saw pieces of itself—lyrics, melodies, a chorus—fade with them.   But somehow, miraculously, it endured. It found new lyrics, new melodies…a new voice to carry it down more roads. It found itself in a Cleveland, Ohio recording studio, bouncing hither and yon through the old guitar of a bespectacled young singer named Amanda Egerer. Egerer had always been drawn to the lost, hard-travelled tunes…the obscure ones, the prodigals. She didn’t come from the Scottish highlands, or the mountain hollers, or the parlor rooms, but her powerful voice reaches a kind of middle ground where those histories meet. She befriends the lonely song. She ushers it onto the next leg of its journey, like any great folk artist does.

You can listen to and purchase Amanda Egerer’s new album, Folk Songs of Many People, on itunes or at https://amandaegerer.bandcamp.com/album/folk-songs-of-many-people