Well, first things first. If you have any interest in traditional bluegrass music, run out to your favorite bluegrass music store, or call your favorite mail order shop and get this release from Bear Family right now. You have to own it. It's just that simple.
As if we had any doubts, what we hear on these two CDs is indisputable evidence of the prolific genius of Carter and Ralph Stanley. These forty nine songs, over half of them written by Carter or Ralph, and recorded in a six year span from 1953 to 1959, surely establish once and for all that the Stanley Brothers were one of the most influential and defining groups in the history of bluegrass music. By the time they'd moved to Mercury Records in 1953, they had refined a unique sound that would virtually come to define the term "high lonesome."
Serious bluegrass collectors probably already have all of the material here in one form or another. The thing that makes this collection so amazing is the context - this is a chronological compilation of what the Stanley's did throughout the 1950's. The impact of hearing the entire body of work in order is almost overpowering. There's no junk here. The creative energy blazes from the speakers - the soul of Ralph's tenor and powerful banjo, the raw emotion of Carter's vocals, the beauty in the lyrics and memorable melodies, all powered by the driving bass rhythm. This isn't distilled out of their work in that time period - it is their work in that time period. A number of fiddle players, mandolin players and bass players all contributed in unique ways, but made no substantial difference to the overall sound. It is undeniably the Stanley Brother's sound.
I have the feeling that much of this material isn't as well known as their earlier Columbia work or their later material on Starday and King, but it shouldn't be that way any longer. This is bluegrass in its purest, most compelling form. The first disk grabs your attention immediately with the four cuts from their first Mercury session - (Say) Won't You Be Mine, This Weary Heart You Stole Away, I'm Lonesome Without You and Our Last Goodbye. It's like getting hit in the head with a club - it is simply mind- boggling. These aren't career highlights. It was just a single day in the studio. Many bands don't equal this output of originality and quality in an entire career, and yet the Stanley were just getting started.
There's a simplicity in this music that makes it accessible, and it works on many levels. Bluegrass performers have mined this material for years, but it's not overdone. Newcomers to bluegrass will find that this is the embodiment of what the traditional sound is supposed to be. And it's an educational tool for budding pickers - no matter what instrument you play, you need to learn everything on these two CDs. You need to learn the timing, the dynamics and the feel for working together with the other instruments and voices. This is a bluegrass seminar. Nah - it's bluegrass graduate school.
Many of Bear Family's releases contain some obscure gems and this one is no exception. Meet Me Tonight and Nobody's Business were recorded in 1959 and were only available for a short time after release in 1962 before going out of print. They are a welcome addition here.
By now, there has been an awful lot written about Bear Family's efforts to reissue the classic bluegrass and country music from the early days in a carefully assembled and high quality package. This is another feather in their cap. The liner notes from Gary B. Reid trace the path of the Stanley's through the 50's and nicely tie together the details of the recording sessions and the songs. The sound quality is excellent. These Mercury recordings can take their rightful place beside Bear Family's reissues of the Stanley's Columbia and Starday/King collections.
I once heard a DJ on a local radio station here say that the Stanley Brothers were like olives - they take some getting used to but, once you do, they sure are good. Amen. You have to own this collection!