march 2011

Dr. Ralph Stanley: Much like scripture, A Mother’s Prayer is its own witness.

Speaking Truth About The Good News

By David McGee

Ralph Stanley
Rebel Records

Any new communication from Dr. Ralph Stanley is most welcome, and in A Mother’s Prayer he makes his latest appearance ever more meaningful by focusing on the gospel messages closest to his heart. No less benevolent in song than he is in his personal life, Dr. Stanley reaches across oceans of time for his material, not caring whether the sources are too old to be dated or come by way of a current mainstream contemporary country star--the good doctor is about spreading the good news of Christ’s death on the cross as atonement for humankind’s sins and the glorious promise of salvation inherent in the triumph of the cross. To that end, “What Kind of Man,” the high-spirited, banjo-fired song Stanley wrote with his former Clinch Mountain Boy Larry Sparks, does not wonder who Jesus is, but asks that question only rhetorically; each verse chronicles a series of miracles and miraculous events that say everything about the son of God’s constitution and, ultimately, His earthly purpose, in effect answering anyone who would ask the query Jesus posed to his disciples: in essence, “Who do men say I am?”

Ralph Stanley performs ‘Angel Band’ and cracks a joke to boot

A Mother’s Prayer begins with a hard driving tune of more recent vintage, “That Home Far Away,” penned by the Stanley brothers’ half-sister Ruby Rakes Eubanks and recorded by the Stanleys on their second King LP in 1959. With Steve Sparkman’s furiously rolling banjo lines leading the charge, Ralph is joined by the friendly tenor of John Rigsby in anticipating a heavenly reward for walking the straight and narrow in this life, hopeful sentiments expressed with conviction and further underscored by Rigsby’s own spitfire mandolin solo, bursting forth from the arrangement with the energy of the newly saved. Of uncertain vintage but dating at least to the late 19th Century, “Come All Ye Tenderhearted” is a Stanley Brothers classic based on the true story of a mountain woman who left her infant daughters alone while she ventured to a neighbor’s to borrow something, only to return and find her home in flames and her girls burned to death. Accompanied only by a bowed bass sounding a droning, ominous chord, Dr. Stanley sings and speaks the verses with a chilling immediacy as if reporting on a current event, the hard life of mountain people ever fresh in his memory. It’s an odd moment that jumps out of the record, simply owing to it being the only song among the 14 here not directly concerned with salvation and redemption in some form. It may well be the most unforgettable moment as well. From the same era as “Come All Ye Tenderhearted” arises the a cappella “Prince of Peace,” a simple, powerful testimony of faith that seems even more direct for the singer’s weathered but firm voice being unaccompanied by instruments; and Elisha Hoffman’s gospel standard, “Are You Washed In the Blood,” an ultimate statement of the good news, here further blessed by exuberant supporting solos from Dewey Brown on fiddle, and Sparkman and Rigsby on banjo and mandolin, respectively.

Over the occasional spare picking of James Alan Shelton’s evocative guitar, Dr. Stanley offers a stirring, solemn reading of Washington Phillips’s “Lift Him Up, That’s All.” Phillips remains a most compelling figure, a Texas gospel singer who recorded but 18 sides between 1927 and 1929, accompanying himself on a Dolceola that he may have built himself. Phillips used his songs as sermons, often speaking the verses as if from the pulpit (which accounts for their conversational quality--he was trying to make a point, not write rhyming verse or conjure poetic imagery) and singing choruses to his chiming Dolceola accompaniment. “Lift Him Up” celebrates the life and mission of Jesus Christ--“He came to draw men to Him” is the repeated, dramatic refrain--in a simple parable of Christ confronting a skeptical woman at the well. As Phillips did in his version, so does Dr. Stanley do in his: add no embroidery to the verses but speak plainly and directly of Christ’s effect on people, and the good that will ensue from following Him, while Shelton, when he enters, crafts simple, affecting bumpers, if you will, to strengthen the singer’s testimony--a truly powerful moment of spare beauty and unalloyed faith in Phillips’s words.

The Stanley Brothers, ‘Rank Stranger’ (1960)

Songs from contemporary writers hew to the messages of ages past. Country star Sara Evans, collaborating with Billy and Terry Smith (the latter of the Grascals), contributes “Let It Go,” a bouncy bluegrass entreaty to give up the sinful life and “worldly things” in return for the more fulfilling promise of accepting Christ as savior. A similar appeal informs “Let Him Into Your Heart,” by the Clinch Mountain Boys’ fiddler, Dewey Brown; here, amidst the lively support from Sparkman on banjo, Rigsby on mandolin and Shelton on guitar, Stanley divests himself of one of his most plaintive and sincere vocals on the entire album. And if anyone needs added inducement to heed the call, Dr. Stanley digs in for a heartfelt reading of “A Mother’s Prayer,” from the time-honored song tradition of wayward sons led to salvation by their dying mothers’ appeals to God. Written by Ronnie Bowman and Blue Highway’s Shawn Lane, “A Mother’s Prayer” is a sweeping family chronicle in four minutes, twenty seconds’ time, detailing a son’s sinful ways, his mother’s ceaseless prayers for his salvation, and finally, a dream in which the son finds himself in Heaven, saved by those same prayers he didn’t fully appreciate when his mother was alive. Cutting across nearly a century and a half of time in drawing from both black and white gospel sources, A Mother’s Prayer is, much like scripture, its own witness. The truth of the good news abides herein.

Ralph Stanley’s A Mother’s Prayer is available at

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Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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