Early bluegrass recordings still dazzle the ear
Recorded at three sessions in 1947 and ’48 (with a four-tune epilogue from 1952), The Stanley Brothers’ Complete Rich-R-Tone 78s captures the cultural moment in which bluegrass sprung from the hard bed of mountain music. The Stanleys’ first studio dates—especially the ghostly sway “Death Is Only A Dream”—sound not far removed from the pre-World War II sides canonized on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Music. As brother Ralph adds fingers to his banjo technique, beginning with a dazzling 1948 take on Bill Monroe’s “Molly and Tenbrook,” the music accelerates atop his high, lonesome rolls. Such slight muscular variations create vast change. Nothing from the ’52 recordings quite matches the former’s speed-demon drama, but the change runs far deeper, manifesting itself in the unrelenting momentum rolling like a current beneath “Little Birdie.” Gary Reid’s liner notes are superb, though it’s a right shame the album isn’t sequenced chronologically. Thank iTunes for the ability to reorder them at will.