november 2009

Ralph Stanley Can't You Hear The Mountains CallingCAN’T YOU HEAR THE MOUNTAINS CALLING
Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys

As Marty Robbins once sang, “Some mem’ries just won’t die.” So it is, to our great benefit as listeners and fans, with this stirring album from Ralph Stanley and one of his finest iterations of Clinch Mountain Boys, which is saying something in and of itself. Originally titled 16 Years, these dozen tracks, in slightly different sequence, were first issued in 1986 on cassette only by River Tracks Records, serving a limited regional audience when Stanley was between labels and needing something to sell at his shows. Reportedly no more than 1,000 were manufactured, absent any plans for a second printing. But the music found its way to someone at Copper Creek Records, and in 1995 it surfaced on CD, appealing to a broader but still bluegrass-centric audience. More recently, Greg Greenstein, who owned the original masters, brought it to the attention of Rounder Records, and here we are, the music remixed, remastered, resequenced, the album renamed, the proceedings preserved herein undiminished in power, with Ralph Stanley’s reputation and deserved acclaim at its apex. Bottom line: these performances are so moving on so many levels, pretty much all you can do is thank God you’re around to experience them in full.

In addition to Stanley on lead tenor and banjo, the band includes Jack Cooke on bass and baritone/tenor vocals; Junior Blankenship on lead guitar; Curly Ray Cline on fiddle; and on guitar and lead vocals, Charlie Sizemore, a giant in both Clinch Mountain Boys and bluegrass history (assuming you accept these as mutually exclusive entities). In Sizemore Stanley had a simpatico co-vocalist who, arguably, filled Carter Stanley’s shoes better than anyone else had to that point not by dint of trying to but rather in the effective timbral contrast between his stout, resolute tenor and Ralph’s high, crying harmonies. Theirs was bluegrass harmonizing par excellence, two voices expressing both the light and the dark of a single feeling, or Stanley playing off Sizemore’s more restrained delivery to suggest a greater urgency at hand. This pattern is established from the outset, when the two vocalists nip at each other’s heels on the hard driving album opener, “Don’t Wake Me Up.” They’re most persuasive when the topics turn to homecoming, salvation and regret. The meshing of their voices on the plaintive ballad addressing a prodigal son, “Can’t You Hear the Mountains Calling,” are simply startling—Stanley’s upper register cry in the verses comes from someone who understands in his core why it’s important to heed the title’s call, and he expresses this with soul fully bared. There’s another way to be lost and lonely, namely spiritually, and Charlie and Ralph explore this particular state of dislocation in “When You Go Walking After Midnight,” in which Ralph offers only the sparest remonstration to the song’s forlorn subject, allowing Sizemore’s deeply charged reading to soberly thunder the simple pragmatism informing the text: “Thank God you’ve got a home to go to/And a woman’s love to keep you warm/You won’t find the stars in the honky tonks and bars/Go home to your woman’s loving heart.” The kicker is at the end when the final lyric reveals the singer to be speaking from experience, sadly so: “Walk down any street/many lost souls you will meet/whose lives are broken like mine,” rendering an abrupt ending all the more chilling.

For sheer good fun the band storms through a breakneck treatment of “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” and between the delight Stanley and Sizemore exude in frolicking through the choruses and the sizzling instrumental drive courtesy Stanley’s banjo, Blankenship’s guitar and Cline’s fiddle, a listener could find himself gasping for breath by the time the song charges across the finish line. Stanley’s barnburning instrumental “Dickinson Country Breakdown” offers another exhilarating display of flawless speed picking and red-hot bowing by the above named players, but primarily it’s a showcase for a bravura display of Stanley’s precision clawhammer banjo prowess. Naturally, this is going to attract attention, but Stanley gives wide berth to his band members to make their own statements, resulting in some of the richest ensemble instrumental textures on any Stanley album. Whether due to the remixing/remastering process or present on the original cassette, the sonic depth of Can’t You Hear the Mountains Calling is impressive—the music and voices, so well balanced, are loud and live throughout. Someone really wanted this music to be heard with the clarity and sense of purpose the band could bring on stage or in your living room. On that count, and all others, this outing more than earns its classic stature. We listen in awe. —David  McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024