The Doctor’s Got New Students
Well, we’ve crossed the threshold of 2015. No, we don’t yet have hover boards and flying cars, and we still have many of the same problems we’ve been dealing with since time immemorial. Indeed, we have some new problems thanks to technological innovations. Yes, it’s a new year, and time keeps marching on, which is why it so damn refreshing to have a new record courtesy of Ralph Stanley. The album is refreshing in the way it’s refreshing to have a home cooked meal after being on the road eating hotel food and takeout. The record is familiar, and made with love.
But make no mistake, while this record does not veer off the well-worn path of bluegrass music, Stanley has opted to freshen up classic tunes that include “Pig in a Pen” and “We Shall Rise” by inviting some help from the likes of Robert Plant, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Elvis Costello, and Old Crow Medicine Show, just to name a few. Dr. Stanley (as he was dubbed by Yale University and is now known) has delved into his catalogue and offered up these war horses to his fellow, though younger, musical legends to play around with. The results are worth the listen.
Dr. Stanley’s voice has its own distinction. For those of you who may not be familiar, his voice was made famous by his work on the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Though? when he sang on “Oh Death.” His voice and that song painted a sonic picture of Appalachia that could rival the best written accounts. Take that voice and pair it with Robert Plant’s over droning fiddles, and you get a haunting rendition of the song “Two Coats” that carries the weight of Appalachian culture as profoundly as “Oh Death.” The lyrics “Now this coat, it suits me, it keeps me so warm, it’s good in the winter, and it’s good in the storm” seem quite fitting.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings bring a sprightly energy to “Pig in a Pen” and are a perfect fit for this tune. Elvis Costello is unexpected and uplifting to hear trading lyrics with Stanley on “Red Wicked Wine,” and his turn on the record runs right along with his most recent work with The New Basement Tapes.
Call this a record of Dr. Stanley and his new disciples. Bluegrass is gaining a wider appreciation from the public and from unexpected corners of the musical landscape, and Stanley is making the most of that. Bluegrass music has always been about collaboration, but this one takes that tradition to a new level.