Ralph Stanley, “A Distant Land to Roam: Ralph Stanley Sings Songs of The Carter Family” (DMZ/Columbia)
Bluegrass music icon Ralph Stanley has been performing songs by The Carter Family for 60 years, going back to when he and his late brother Carter Stanley introduced themselves on a rural Virginia radio station in 1946.
No one knows these mountain music tunes better than he does, but his familiarity doesn’t keep him from finding fresh ways to deliver both the classic tunes (“Motherless Children,” “Worried Man Blues”) and the lesser known (“Little Moses,” “On a Hill Lone and Grey”).
At age 79, Stanley’s stark, otherworldly tenor has lost much of its strength and clarity; since his triple-bypass surgery in June 2005, his voice has had a throatier tone and a more constricted range.
But, working with the perfectly pitched acoustic arrangements of co-producers Bob Neuwirth and Larry Ehrlich, Stanley brings a moral weight and an earthy, for-the-ages power to these old-time tunes. When he sings, “It takes a worried man to sing a worried song,” he conveys as well as any living artist how singing about hard times can help transcend them.