Peter Rowan’s new CD, Carter Stanley’s Eyes, his first release on Rebel Records, should be in everyone’s music collection. This is really good stuff.
For any album to succeed, a number of things have to come together all at once: Good songs, good singing and good playing. None of those things have to be flashy. In fact, too much flash will usually detract from the parts that make the songs work. What’s most important is that the performers produce something a listener will want to hear more than once, not just this month while it’s one of the newer CDs in the stack, but now and then over the years that follow. This is one of those.
When I first saw the title of this CD, I suspected it might be just a Stanley Brothers tribute album consisting of Clinch Mountain classics redone in Rowan’s high lonesome vocal style. That would have been a satisfying album, I’m sure, but this CD is much more than that.
Though Carter Stanley’s name is prominent in the title, the album isn’t really just about the Stanley Brothers’ music. Only six of the songs were previously recorded by the Stanleys and only four of those are Ralph or Carter Stanley compositions. The rest of the songs come from some other great writers, including Bill Monroe, the Louvin Brothers, A.P. Carter, Leadbelly, and Rowan himself.
The title of the CD derives from one of Rowan’s own songs “The Light in Carter Stanley’s Eyes,” most of which is a recitation about Bill Monroe visiting Carter Stanley at the Stanley home place in Virginia and taking along a young Bluegrass Boy, Rowan, who found inspiration in the encounter. Rowan has said that Carter died within a matter of months after this meeting. That places the visit in 1966, roughly the same time as the Stanley Brothers’ appearance on Pete Seeger’s TV show, Rainbow Quest. When I first saw that episode, which is available for viewing at a couple of Internet sites, I couldn’t stop thinking how ill Carter looked—the absence of any sort of light in Carter’s eyes at that time is striking. But it’s easy to imagine how a failing Carter Stanley would have been perked up, at least a little, by a visit from Monroe, who used the occasion to laud Carter as “one of the best of the Bluegrass Boys . . . and my favorite lead singer.”
“Let Me Love You One More Time”
In the liner notes to the CD, Rowan describes how important the Stanley Brothers were to his own development as a musician and performer. In the Stanley selections, Rowan honors them not by replicating their sound, but by doing justice to each song in his own style, and with arrangements that are simple and straightforward. Most notable are Ralph’s “Let Me Love You One More Time,” which features a fine twin mandolin break, and Carter’s beautifully mournful “Too Late to Cry.”
The best of the non-Stanley songs are two of Rowan’s own compositions. “Drumbeats on the Watchtower,” a song Rowan previously released as “Wild Geese Cry Again” on his 1996 CD Bluegrass Boy, is a throbbing, modal lament about loneliness and loss, with stirring imagery of wild geese, dry leaves, and “dew . . . falling cold as midnight.”
In “Take My Ashes,” which was cowritten with Rex Foster, Rowan sings comfortingly of a spiritual immortality, assuring the bereaved that a lost loved one can be found in aspects of the natural world. It’s a good song to consider the next time you are asked to sing at a memorial service (along with the Stanley’s version of “Gathering Flowers for the Master’s Bouquet” and Lucy Kaplansky’s “Over the Hills”).
It is satisfying to hear great musicians at work on all of these cuts. The ensemble includes: Jack Lawrence (guitar), Don Rigsby (mandolin and vocals), Patrick Sauber (banjo, guitar, vocals), Blaine Sprouse (fiddle, vocal), Chris Henry (mandolin, vocals), Paul Knight (bass) and Jamie Oldaker (percussion). All of these players hit the right notes to carry out the the most important functions of the supporting players in a recording session—to complement what the lead singer is up to at any given moment and then to play a decent break when it’s your turn.
Tim O’Brien is present, as well, as guitarist and singer, but also as associate producer. Rowan and O’Brien are versatile artists who have spent a lot of time in their careers successfully exploring wide ranges of other musical traditions—Tex-Mex, Hawaiian, Tibetan, Irish, Reggae, folk, country, old-time. Yet it’s clear from the selections, the arrangements and the mix on this CD that they retain solid Bluegrass sensibilities.
One of my tests for a new CD is whether I find myself skipping some tracks when I replay it after the first couple of listens. I’ve yet to do that with this one. Carter Stanley’s Eyes is a CD that I’m sure to keep playing, straight through, in the coming weeks and on into the future.