At 84 and approaching his 65th year on the road, few things have slowed down for Ralph Stanley — especially his recording style.
“We didn’t have a bit of trouble,” Stanley said of his latest album, “A Mother’s Prayer.” ‘’I never have had trouble recording.”
Stanley and His Clinch Mountain Boys laid down the 14 tracks on his first album in five years in about 10 hours total over two days — from conception to arrangement to recording.
“It’s kind of spontaneous, in a way that kind of puts an edge to it,” said James Alan Shelton, Stanley’s guitarist. “We didn’t rehearse a minute for that record — just went in the studio, worked ‘em up on the spot and put ‘em down. And I bet you none of them would’ve been over two or three takes at the most.”
What emerges is an at times uplifting batch of sacred songs that are made all the more powerful by Stanley’s voice — always an amazing tool made even more so by time. When he opens the album with the line “Oh, Lord, have mercy on this weary soul of mine,” it has the ring of authenticity that Stanley has always mastered in his decades as a member of The Stanley Brothers, with his brother Carter, and on his own.
His a cappella versions of “John the Revelator” and “Prince of Peace” harken back to his powerful rendition of “O Death,” the song on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack that introduced him to his widest audience in decades.
On “Lift Him Up, That’s All” Stanley sings over Shelton’s quiet guitar line with devastating effect.
“I’ve heard people say Ralph sounded old when he was a young man and now he sounds ancient,” Shelton said. “That’s probably true.”
Stanley hasn’t recorded an album since 2005’s “A Distant Land to Roam: Songs of the Carter Family.” Reworkings of gospel and religious music have long been a part of his repertoire.
Some of the songs from “A Mother’s Prayer,” released in April, have their roots in 19th century Appalachia and Stanley serves as a bridge from those mostly forgotten times to the present.
“ I went back to older times really, if you know what I mean,” he said. “I wanted it to sound that way. Most of them are really not songs that I’ve been singing for a long time. I’ve gathered them up from different people. I liked them and thought I could sing them pretty good, and I needed material so I got to lookin’ for it. I think it’s some of the best I’ve ever had.”
Like those songs, Stanley has stood the test of time.