RALPH STANLEY'S spiritual bluegrass music is instantly reminiscent of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?": His haunting a cappella "O Death" is featured prominently in the film. In addition, the film's old-timey sound is the musical style he has been perfecting since he started playing in 1946 with brother Carter. Stanley has continued to surround himself with family; his current backing band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, includes son Ralph II and grandson Nathan.
Stanley's latest, "Shine On," gives a brief nod to "O Brother" with a banjo- and mandolin-driven "I'll Fly Away." A gospel tone weaves through the album, from the uplifting "This Little Light of Mine" to the more reflective title track, written by Dolly Parton. Despite Stanley's solo billing, "Shine On" is a collaborative effort, with Ralph II taking over lead vocals on the mournful "My Main Trial Is Yet to Come" and the Clinch Mountain Boys adding voices and instrumentation to nearly every track.
The most striking moments on "Shine On" are two a cappella numbers, but instead of singing alone as he did on "O Death," Stanley is joined by members of his band in rich harmony. "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" carries a plaintive tone, made even more melancholy by a slow, rhythmic hand clap during the chorus. "Sing Songs About Jesus" is easily the album's most memorable track, with Stanley almost rushing through wavering solo verses to settle into the stunning, four-part harmonies in the chorus.
-- Catherine P. Lewis
Appearing Saturday at the Birchmere.