About 25 years ago, Rolling Stone writer Dave Marsh compiled a book called The Heart of Rock and Soul, a guide for what he felt were the 1000 best singles in rock and roll history. For younger readers, “singles” are “45s”, smaller records with one song on each side. The Heart of Rock and Soul is a wonderful book. Mr. Marsh makes some interesting choices, and shares interesting anecdotes about the artists and their music.
I remember how intrigued I was by Marsh’s high ranking (#99) and writeup of The Stanley Brothers’ “Rank Stranger”. At that point, I had never heard of The Stanley Brothers or the song. So I went shopping and found a record with “Rank Stranger”, probably the album called Sacred Songs From The Hills. Here is an example of Mr. Marsh’s fine writing. I simply don’t possess the creative ability to describe songs as he does:
“A man is forced by circumstance to leave his home and family to seek his fortune. Years later, he returns to find the places and faces that have visited him hourly in his longings and dreams are gone, simply disappeared. The scene is to him a desperate and despairing one. It’s not just that a whole world he once knew no longer exists; it’s that what has replaced it seems so completely alien. One of these rank strangers attempts to console him, telling him that the things he loves still exist in another dimension, but he is not to be solaced. “Everybody I met, seemed to be a rank stranger,” he sings. “No mother or dad, not a friend could I see / They knew not my name, and I knew not their faces / I found they were all rank strangers to me.”
Schematically, “Rank Strangers” is a folk tale, with an air of legend and miracle, the ashes and dust from which the myth of rock and country and soul wanderlust is fashioned. It’s the template, as it were, from which Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City,” Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia,” Chuck Berry’s “The Promised Land” and dozens of other songs were created. Or so it feels. It’s almost impossible to believe that the Stanley Brothers debuted such a classic piece of American folklore as late as 1960.
Maybe the Stanleys’ record of Brumley’s great hymn has such continuing power because it was the last of its kind. After about 1960, folk music became what it is today: a marketing category, divorced from whatever reality it ever had as a description of how people in some communities went about making culture. The returning native in “Rank Strangers” represents many things – a Christian adrift in the temporal world, a sinner trying to storm the gates of heaven, “The Man Without A Country” of Edward Everett Hale’s short story, the workingman become cosmopolitan in the course of traveling to ply his trade, perhaps above all, the southerner forced into Yankee territory and returning to find his homeland forever altered. But these words, this music, in my imagination at least, also represent the reaction of such forebears as Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson to what rock and roll had made of the basic elements of American folk music.”
— Dave Marsh
By the third or fourth time I played “Rank Stranger” on the turntable, I was hooked. It hits me right in the sweet spot of some deep emotions: home, loneliness, missing my mother and father. Also, the sound of the Stanley Brothers voices, the unique tone of the Scotch-Irish from Appalachia, resonates with me, the grandson of Scottish immigrants.
Their music is deeply religious, with the few recurring themes of love, Jesus, home and family. Despite my agnostic views, I find this type of spiritual music very affecting.
“Get Down On Your Knees And Pray”
In reviewing their music last night, I find I can only listen to a finite number of Stanley Brothers songs before losing interest. Although their voices are soulful and their music crisp and intricate, the breadth of their musical expression is limited in modern terms. The same instrumentation is always used, and the songs tend to have the same simple structures. Many songs are 3/4 waltzes.
One of their more famous songs, “How Mountain Girls Can Love”
Carter Stanley did at a young age, but Ralph has continued to perform throughout his life. Ralph Stanley gained some notoriety for his rendition of “O, Death” in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
From time to time, enjoy the great, soulful expression of The Stanley Brothers. I tried to a pick a worthwhile, small representation of their music. They were very prolific. The first CD to purchase is The Complete Columbia Stanley Brothers. After that, it gets a bit more complicated to find the definitive version of each song. Send me a message if you’d like to know about a specific song:
Rank Stranger, The Stanley Brothers ✭✭✭✭
Pretty Polly, The Stanley Brothers ✭✭✭✭
Gathering Flowers For The Master’s Bouquet, The Stanley Brothers ✭✭✭
The White Dove, The Stanley Brothers ✭✭✭
Orange Blossom Special (Live), The Stanley Brothers ✭✭✭
Clinch Mountain Backstep, The Stanley Brothers ✭✭
This Weary Heart You Stole Away (Wake Up, Sweetheart), The Stanley Brothers ✭✭
Little Glass Of Wine, The Stanley Brothers ✭✭
How Mountain Girls Can Love, The Stanley Brothers ✭✭
The Fields Have Turned Brown, The Stanley Brothers ✭✭
Meet Me By The Moonlight, The Stanley Brothers ✭✭
Let The Church Roll On, The Stanley Brothers ✭✭
Angel Band, The Stanley Brothers ✭✭
I’m A Man Of Constant Sorrow, The Stanley Brothers ✭
Jacob’s Vision, The Stanley Brothers ✭
I’m A Man Of Constant Sorrow, Soggy Bottom Boys ✭✭✭
I’m A Man Of Constant Sorrow, Rod Stewart ✭✭
Pretty Polly, The Byrds ✭
Clinch Mountain Backstep, The Kentucky Colonels ✭✭
Orange Blossom Special, Johnny Cash ✭✭
Orange Blossom Special, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ✭✭