No one who's heard the Stanley Brothers' classic 1960 recording of "Rank Stranger," about a country boy's toolong-deferred homecoming, is apt to forget the chilling tenor voice of Ralph Stanley coming in on the chorus. In two lines Everybody I met / Seemed to be a rank stranger") before his mellower-voiced brother, Carter, takes the lead again, he distills a lifetime of lonesomeness. The Stanleys were the rawest, most mountain-sounding of the firstgeneration bluegrass bands, and it was Ralph's piercing tenor and hard-driving banjo that gave them their cutting edge. Carter Stanley died in 1966; Ralph, 66, has now been on his own for longer than he was a Stanley Brother. Next to the 81-year-old Bill Monroe, who invented the music and gave it its name, he's the most revered figure in the world of bluegrass.
One measure of this reverence is the guest lineup on Stanley's deeply moving new two-CD set Saturday Night & Sunday Morning (Freeland Recording Co., Asbury, W. Va.): Jones, Dwight Yoakam, Ricky Skaggs, three of last Grammy winners (Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Alison Krauss) and Monroe himself, his own ghostly tenor a study in what to make of a diminished thing. Bluegrass dates only from Monroe's hiring the revolutionary banjo player Earl Scruggs in 1945-the year Charlie Parker teamed up with Dizzy Gillespie. More recent still is its exile from the country-music mainstream, thanks to rigid radio formats. Stanley lives in backcountry Virginia; the ease with which Nashville stars blend with his Clinch Mountain Boys-Skaggs, in fact, once was a Clinch Mountain Boy-suggests the distance is only geographical.
The closest the Stanleys came to mainstream country stardom was when Columbia signed them in 1949 as Monroe soundalikes-prompting Monroe to quit the label in protest, though he soon made up with the Stanleys. But how could anyone ever have thought Ralph Stanley sounded like anybody else? Both his singing and his banjo playing-not as fancy as Scruggs's, but tougher-always had the soul and simplicity that make him instantly recognizable in a notoriously clone-prone genre.
"Saturday Night & Sunday Morning" (one disc has secular songs, one sacred) is far more than a celebrity tribute. What Stanley has lost in ferocity he's gained in warmth: today even his speaking voice, echoing Emmylou Harris's singing "I Never Will Marry," can break your heart. His high harmonies with his former sideman Skaggs on "All I Ever Loved Was You" sound as taut and tart as ever. Only "Rank Stranger," with Tom T. Hall singing Carter's part, is a letdown; how could it not be? As Ralph Stanley once said of his classic recordings, "There's a certain time in your life when things come to you. And that was the time for us." That sense of pride in a life's work and ruefulness at its finitude colors every second of "Saturday Night & Sunday Morning": an autumnal masterpiece by an American master.