Reviewed by Henry L. Carrigan Jr.
Dr. Ralph Stanley can't sit still; he tried to retire in 2013 and even went out on a farewell tour, but the three-time Grammy winner just wasn't ready to say farewell, yet. Making music for well over half a century, Stanley has been re-shaping music his entire career, riding firmly in the path of bluegrass tradition while helping shape that tradition with his iconic high lonesome sound. After his brother Carter's death in 1964, he refashioned the Clinch Mountain Boys, focusing on his voice and introducing many of the leading singers and players in contemporary bluegrass, some of whom, like Keith Whitley, have left this world, and others like Larry Sparks, who've gone on to spectacular careers of their own.
On "Man of Constant Sorrow," a stellar group of Dr. Stanley's friends gather around him to record new versions of his songs with him, paying tribute to his musical genius and his deep, deep influence on many musical styles.
Produced by the tireless Americana duo of Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller, the album features Stanley's high lonesome tenor weaving and bobbing around the voices of artists ranging from Robert Plant and Elvis Costello to Old Crow Medicine Show and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
Josh Turner grew up listening to "We Shall Rise" on an old Stanley Brothers' album, and he joins Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys for some rousing, get-up-and-meet-the-Lord bluegrass gospel to kick off the album. Lee Ann Womack and her daughter, Aubrie Sellers, join Stanley, capturing the poignant ache of lonesomeness in their heart-rending version of Carter Stanley's "White Dove."
Miller and Lauderdale testify in the stirring call-and-response tune "I Am the Man, Thomas," written by Stanley and Larry Sparks, while Dierks Bentley croons the tear-jerker "I Only Exist," co-written by Stanley's wife, Jimmie. Del McCoury and Stanley join forces for the first time ever on their version of the Jesse Winchester chestnut, "Brand New Tennessee Waltz."
The album closes out with Stanley's tribute to his brother, Carter, the recitation "Hills of Home" and the song for which Dr. Stanley may be best known to listeners outside the bluegrass world, "Man of Constant Sorrow."
Dr. Stanley turns 88 on Feb. 25. As this album makes clear, he's not slowing down any time soon.