Album Reviews

Ralph Stanley & Friends – Man Of Constant Sorrow

Artist:     Ralph Stanley & Friends

Album:     Man Of Constant Sorrow

Label:     Cracker Barrel

Release Date:     01/19/2015

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There’s no mystery why Man of Constant Sorrow is billed the way it is. When you toss famous names like Elvis Costello, Dierks Bentley, Robert Plant, Buddy Miller and Lee Ann Womack into the mix, the sales strategy couldn’t be more obvious. Indeed, as the latest offering from Cracker Barrel’s exclusive in-store brand, it seems a savvy move. Still, some might argue that the folks that frequent that all-American establishment might not need that kind of enticement when it comes to a new album by the singular Dr. Stanley. At age 87, he’s a bluegrass music icon, and a legendary musician at that. Any thought that he actually needs these big name guest stars to bolster his credence is an idea that verges on heresy. While the ploy may do as it was intended and bring new fans into the fold, Man of Constant Sorrow still qualifies as an excellent album of vintage mountain music, his famous friends notwithstanding.

The fact is, Stanley still steals the show, and most of the assists from his special guests ultimately seem superfluous. Even Robert Plant’s distinctive moan pales when placed in tandem with Stanley’s back porch croon. Elvis Costello is practically buried in the mix on “Red Wicked Wine,” while Gillian Welch and David Rawlings offer minimal support on “Pig in a Pen.” And while the inclusion of such modern traditionalists as Old Crow Medicine Show, Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale must have looked good on paper, there’s little they can add to the mix when a seasoned troubadour like Ralph Stanley takes center stage. This is his turf and, aside from having the equally venerable Del McCoury singing lead on “Brand New Tennessee Waltz,” no other help is needed  When Stanley gets the mike to himself for two of his signature songs — “Hills of Home” and “Man of Constant Sorrow” — it’s clear he could just as well have recorded the entire album on his own regardless.

That said, those curious about the cameos are encouraged to check it out. The curiosity factor just might achieve the results the marketing folks had hoped for, causing those cash registers to ring. So be it. In the end, it’s still Dr. Stanley who prescribes exactly what is called for.

– Lee Zimmerman

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