Lonesome River Band,
Mayhayley's House
(Mountain Home, 2017)

Ralph Stanley II & the Clinch Mountain Boys,
Ralph Stanley II & the Clinch Mountain Boys
(Stanley Family, 2017)

The Lonesome River Band has been around long enough that its original members are long departed. Thus, though not a founder, banjo player Sammy Shelor, who signed on in the early 1990s, is the name you think of, at least if you know about these things, when LRB comes to mind or drops into conversation.

The band has always boasted the most accomplished pickers around, for example, currently, the formidable guitarist and lead singer Brandon Rickman.

LRB is nothing if not prolific. Its last outing was Bridging the Tradition, which I reviewed in this space on 21 May 2016. A year later, we have Mayhayley's House, about a real-life mountain woman, Amanda Mayhayley Lancaster (1878-1955), who called herself the "Oracle of the Ages," apparently without local dissent. The song is from Nashville songwriter Adam Wright, who happens to be country star Alan Jackson's nephew. Wright's writing is always a notch or more above the usual Music City hackery, owing not only to well-honed talent but to knowledge of Southern musical traditions rare these days in that quarter.

There are lively arrangements of a couple of authentic mountain standards, "Ida Red" and "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss," intended as a nod to bluegrass' debt to Southern folk. Among the leading acts on the current circuit (and deservedly so), LRB is undeniably modern in style, willing to call on drums and piano sometimes, but its commitment to a true bluegrass sound is never in doubt. That's why every faction in bluegrass' fractured listenership is united in its enthusiasm for what LRB does.

The musicianship is at an astonishingly high level even for bluegrass, in its way as demanding a genre for players as jazz. The song choices are exemplary, with a particular emphasis on those that tell interesting stories (e.g., Don Humphries's "Blackbirds and Crows"). There may be no such thing as a mediocre LRB album, but if this one seems even better than usual ... well, maybe that's just because it's the newest one.

Following the death of Ralph Stanley in June 2016, son Ralph Stanley II took on leadership of his father's venerable band, the Clinch Mountain Boys. This is the first product of that collaboration, in which the son performs hard-core Appalachian music rooted in the Stanleys' native Virginia soil. Though there is plenty of supporting evidence for the proposition that talent skips a generation, it's not the case here. Ralph II is a proud and capable inheritor of the family tradition, and this eponymous disc has the feeling of both the Stanley Brothers (Ralph & Carter) and the even harder-edged approach Ralph pursued after Carter's passing in late 1966.

The disc opens with Ralph's "Henry Brown," an in-the-tradition ballad characteristic of many classics in that vein composed over the course of a storied career. The fatalistic "Mary Merry Christmas" is said to be the last song Carter Stanley wrote, addressed to his wife as he looked toward a holiday he would not quite live to see. "Goin' Round the World" is not the banjo-driven oldtime song by that name but a Ralph II original, and an estimable piece in its own right. "Life to Go" is credited to George Jones, though Jones claimed that a prisoner serving a long sentence had given it to him.

Among the oldest numbers is "Cannonball Blues," associated with but predating the Carter Family. While its lyrics express a hobo's thoughts on the traveling life, it's arranged in this instance as a pleasing flat-picking instrumental. "No More the Sun Shines on Lorena," a 19th-century minstrel ballad set in the antebellum South, is an over-the-top sentimental saga detailing a doomed love affair between slaves. Recorded decades ago by the Carter Family, the Blue Sky Boys, and no doubt others, it seems an odd choice for revival. Too bad so attractive a melody is saddled to such cringe-inducing lyrics.

Even so, the album serves as a worthy tribute to the Stanley sound and a welcome assurance that it will continue.

music review by
Jerome Clark

8 July 2017

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