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Originally published on July 24, 2016.

Ralph Stanley & Friends, Man of Constant Sorrow (Cracker Barrel, Red River, 2014)

Ralph Stanley titled his autobiography, Man of Constant Sorrow.*

I reckon I'm the real Man of Constant Sorrow. I've been singing that song for sixty years now, and I think I'm the one who kept it alive. (432)

A song like “Man of Constant Sorrow” is as old as dirt. It was already old when I learned it from dad. The record company found the family of a blind singer from Kentucky who printed up the words in a song booklet in 1913… But I don't think they will ever know who really did write it." (432)

Stanley's voice fits the song perfectly:

… as far back as I can remember, every one told me I had an old-time mountain voice: what they called weathered and lived-in, like something you'd hear moaning in the woods late at night and not from the mouth of a young'un. They called me the boy with a hundred-year-old voice." (2)

The title track closes the album, a solo bookend to Stanley’s rousing duet with Josh Turner, “We Shall Rise.” Among the other esteemed friends are former Clinch Mountain Boy, Ricky Skaggs (“Sweetheart in Heaven”), Elvis Costello (“Red Wicked Wine”), Dierks Bentley (“I Only Exist”), Old Crow Medicine Show (“Short Life of Sorrow”) and Lee Ann Womack (“White Dove”).

Describing a performance where he refused to comply with a club owner’s mandate, ‘There will be no gospel songs sung in my building,” Stanley wrote:

We were having one of those shows where everything goes smooth. No hitches at all. Now you can do that all night and there is nothing wrong with that. But I want to take people to another place… There’s where I want the music to shift gears. That’s the time when I feel like digging deep into the hymnbook. (376)

Every selection on Man of Constant Sorrow is more than “smooth” but Stanley takes me to “another place” in his gospel collaborations with grandson Nathan on “Rank Stranger,” one of only 250 “culturally significant songs” in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry; Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, “I Am the Man, Thomas;” and Robert Plant, “Two Coats,” a haunting, mournful song contrasting the two Adams.

In a class all its own is Ralph Stanley's recitation, "Hills of Home," a song addressed to his deceased brother Carter, looking back on their shared lives and forward to a time when they would be side by side again in the hills of home. On June 28th 2016, a recording of “Hills of Home” concluded Ralph Stanley’s funeral service at the Hills of Home Park.  

*Dr. Ralph Stanley with Eddie Dean, Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times (Gotham Books, 2009)

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