Ralph Stanley: A Mother’s Prayer

Written by April 19th, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Ralph Stanley
A Mother’s Prayer
(Rebel)
Rating: ★★★★☆

Like Bill Monroe – or more than Monroe, actually – Dr. Ralph Stanley has never been far from his Lord while singing about real life, about pain, and about the vices that ensnare us all (think “Little Maggie” and “Man of Constant Sorrow”). Stanley came to prominence with the masses a decade ago with his stark a cappella version of “O Death” on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, recording it at an age by which many of his peers had retired, if they had even lived that long. Along the way, Stanley has always found time to release a Gospel album to pay tribute to his God, and on A Mother’s Prayer, he continues the tradition of worship that comes from his Primitive Baptist upbringing, blending it with the distinctive Appalachian bluegrass sound that he and his late brother Carter originated when they figured out they couldn’t make a living simply playing Monroe covers.

Where many artists looking to make a Gospel record might simply mine the old Baptist hymnal, Stanley goes the extra mile by recording songs that aren’t in that hymnal, but perhaps should be. Of the 14 tracks on A Mother’s Prayer, only one, “Are You Washed In the Blood,” might be considered a standard. The rest of the album contains uplifting and edifying material written by Stanley family members (including Stanley, his grandson Nathan and his sister-in-law Floda Neal), as well as some surprising Music Row heavyweights. Writers like Ronnie Bowman (Brooks and Dunn, Kenny Chesney), country star Sara Evans, and Terry Smith of the Grascals – okay, so maybe the Grascals aren’t really Music Row heavyweights – make fine contributions that show their spiritual sides. Stanley delivers their material with the vocal of an 84-year-old fragile but tough Virginia mountain man who thanks God for the good times, the hard times and everything in between.

The most fun track on the album has to be Stanley’s version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator,” delivered a cappella the way that Son House did it so many times. The argument can be made that there are more similarities than differences between the blues of the Mississippi cotton fields and the music created in the Appalachians on homemade guitars by folks who only owned one change of clothes. In both instances the singers looked to God for their sustenance, and Stanley’s vocal is that of a man who sounds like another world-weary sharecropper or coal miner who has lived long enough to preach the Book of Revelation to his great-grandchildren.

Even though some of Stanley’s musical cohorts and management team are based in Nashville, Stanley isn’t part of that machine; this album was recorded near his home in rural Virginia and mastered in Colorado. But here’s hoping that, someday, he’ll make it into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Women, alcohol, guns, and especially Jesus – Dr. Ralph Stanley has sung about everything that real country music once was. A Mother’s Prayer is as much of a treasure as he is, especially considering that we don’t know how much longer we’ll have him.

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