Ralph Stanley was born in the 1920s. That means he was of the right age to become one of the first bluegrass musicians when the genre emerged in the post-war period. It is no exaggeration to say that Stanley was one of its all-time greats. As such, interested individuals should look into his music to learn more about bluegrass’s roots.
Here is our opinion of the ten best Ralph Stanley songs ever released:
10. “Pretty Polly”
“Pretty Polly” is a folk song popular in Appalachia and other parts of the English-speaking world. Given bluegrass’s origins, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear a bluegrass musician performing it.
The calmness of Stanley’s delivery gives “Pretty Polly” an ominous air, which is appropriate because it is a murder ballad. There are versions in which the murderer gets his due punishment. This isn’t one of them.
9. “Little Maggie”
Bluegrass is no stranger to dark themes. “Little Maggie” isn’t as clear about what is going on as “Pretty Polly.” Even so, it gives a strong impression that something terrible is about to happen because the narrator’s words exude violent possessiveness. Once again, Stanley sells that sense of menace well, thus enabling this song to earn a spot on this list.
8. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is a Christian hymn from the early 20th century. Ada Ruth Habershon penned the words, while Charles Hutchinson Gabriel provided the music. However, the passage of time means these things aren’t necessarily known to those who have heard the song.
Stanley is one in a long line of well-known artists who have released recordings of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” He did a better job of depicting unyielding faith in the face of worldly sorrow than most, which is no small achievement considering some of his counterparts.
7. “Mountain Dew”
“Mountain Dew” isn’t referring to the soft drink. Instead, the lyrics make much more sense when one realizes that the term once indicated an alcoholic beverage.
Indeed, it is telling that Barney and Ally Hartman came up with the soft drink when they encountered difficulties in getting their preferred soda for mixing with liquor. Regardless, “Mountain Dew” is referring to the illegal liquor produced during Prohibition. Something that would have been much closer to Stanley and his brother’s time than it is to ours.
6. “Hills of Home”
“Hills of Home” is a powerful reminder that the home of our recollection isn’t something we can return to. We are always changing. As a result, it makes sense that everyone and everything else are also always changing.
There is sadness in the lyrics of “Hills of Home.” However, there is also a sense of closure rather than lingering misery. The past is the past, meaning it is lost beyond recovery. We can grieve for it, but it doesn’t mean that we have to drown in our grief in the process.
5. “Rank Stranger”
“Rank Stranger” has certain similarities with “Hills of Home.” There is the same sense of alienation because something once familiar has become otherwise. That said, the narrator of “Rank Stranger” finds solace in the promise of eternity.
He knows no one around him, and no one around him knows him. Despite this, he knows he will be reunited with his loved ones when the time comes.
4. “White Light/White Heat”
“White Light/White Heat” isn’t the kind of song that one would expect to have been covered by Stanley. For those unfamiliar, it is the title track of the Velvet Underground’s second studio album.
The song is named thus because it is about the feeling of meth being injected into the veins. Even the bass solo is supposed to echo the effects of the rush. That said, Stanley brought a lifetime of experience to the acoustic cover he made for the 2012 movie Lawless, thus resulting in a song that is faithful to the original while still capable of standing on its own.
3. “The White Dove”
Stanley used to sing with his older brother Carter Stanley. The latter wrote “The White Dove” about the death of the narrator’s parents. Sadly, Carter Stanley died at a relatively young age in 1966, thus leaving his younger brother to go on without him. One can’t help but wonder what Stanley thought when he sang “The White Dove” in his later years.
2. “Man of Constant Sorrow”
By this point, it should be clear that Stanley had a penchant for songs with a lonely air to them. “Man of Constant Sorrow” is another example. Moreover, it is the best of the lot, not least because it is more straightforward about things.
It isn’t 100 percent clear where the song came from. The folk musician Dick Burnett was the first person to record it back in 1913. Unfortunately, no one knows whether he heard it or wrote it.
Even Burnett said he couldn’t remember for sure in an interview late in his life, which is fair because the man lived into his 90s. In any case, “Man of Constant Sorrow” is one of the best representatives of Stanley’s work, meaning it is a must-listen for interested individuals.
1. “O Death”
“O Death” isn’t the kind of song that sees much play on modern radio. After all, it sees the narrator begging Death to spare him while Death retorts with its customary mercilessness.
Of course, what sells this folk song is Stanley’s ability to conjure up the necessary despair at need, thus making for a haunting experience. There are very good reasons why “O Death” is widely considered the best or one of the best of his recordings.
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