The Stanley Brothers

An evening long ago

Longtime fans of pure bluegrass music or newcomers entranced by Ralph Stanley’s vocal performance of “Oh Death” on the soundtrack to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? will be well-served by this collection of 20 songs recorded in one take each in a Virginia radio studio in 1956. The brothers, banjoist and singer Ralph and Carter on vocals and guitar (with Curly Lambert on mandolin and Ralph Mayo on fiddle), deliver a set that ranges from the murder ballad “The Story of the Lawson Family,” which includes the lines, “They say he killed his wife at first, while the little ones did cry, ‘Please Papa won’t you spare our lives, for it’s so hard to die,’” to the upbeat, comic love song “My Long Skinny Lanky Sarah Jane.” Throughout, the brothers’ close harmony singing, accented by brilliant musicianship, attains that quality of emotional frisson referred to by Ry Cooder as “chicken skin music,” or, to use a different colloquial idiom, it’ll give you goose bumps. Recommended.