Clinch Mountain Echo

Ralph Stanley - Singing Sixteen Years

(River Track Studios RTS-1097) 1986


Singing Sixteen Years
Cover Copper Creek CD Cover
Copper Creek CD Rear Cover Copper Creek CD Tray

This cassette was recorded on 6th March 1986 at Lowell Varney's River Track studios in Crum, West Va. [1] Approximately a month later they made the Lonesome And Blue album for Rebel.

The album was subsequently reissued on CD (Copper Creek CCCD-0138) 1996, and in modified form as Can't You Hear The Mountains Calling (Rounder 11661-0614-2) 2009.

Lowell Varney's Sixteen Years is said to be an autobiographical tune. The following year, he recorded it again with Ralph & Curly Ray on the Lowell Varney, Landon Messer and Riverside Grass - With Ralph Stanley (Mountain 1001) LP.

Another cut, When You Go Walking After Midnight was also recorded on both this cassette and the Mountain 1001 release, but incorrectly credited on the latter. It was actually written and recorded by Roy McMillan as Wandering In The Darkness in 1972 on his 'High Country' (Rebel SLP-1517) LP. Unfortunately the mis-credit to Landon Messer/Lowell Varney, wasn't corrected on the Rounder release.

As time went on, Ralph recorded fewer banjo instrumentals. Dickenson County Breakdown, is welcome re-recording of his first instrumental from Nov. 1953. The cassette also features re-recordings of two of the first tracks the Stanley Brothers cut at Mercury in Aug. 1953: (Say) Won't You Be Mine and This Weary Heart You Stole Away.

In Despair is a Bill Monroe song.

From a side by side comparison with the Rounder reissue, it seems to me that the cassette has the vocals higher in the mix and an overall thinner sound with less bass end. Incidentally, both mixes could have fitted on one CD...

Track:
Title:
Side One:
(14:13)
1
Cotton-Eyed Joe

P.D.
2
That Happy Night

R. Stanley
3
Don't Wake Me Up

Lum Patton
4
I Lived In Her World

Lundy c. Fields / Lowell P. Varney
5
When You Go Walking After Midnight

Roy McMillan
7
(Say) Won't You Be Mine

C. Stanley
Side Two:
(14:08)
7
Sixteen Years

Lowell Varney
8
Dickenson County Breakdown

R. Stanley
9
Can't You Hear The Mountains Calling

Jerry Williamson
10
In Despair

Joe Ahr / Juanita Pennington
11
This Weary Heart You Stole Away

C. Stanley
12
Little Willie

P.D.

The liner notes to the 2009 Rounder issue has an interesting section by Charlie Sizemore:-

Ralph Stanley's approach to making an album doesn't vary much. First, a rehearsal, usually while on the road, recorded by a small tape player. Here he determines what "works" - which is as hard to define as it is easy for him to recognize.

Many songs never get past this first reading. Consider, for example, a dreadfully sad, lyrically appealing song to which the writer has inexplicably attached a melody more fitting to a fiddle tune. Ralph's wry verdict: "I don't think we're going to record that 'dancing on Mommy's grave' song."

At the final rehearsal, which may be the first, Ralph writes up the results: who does what, when and where. He uses this to direct the band in the studio with nods here and there when someone forgets what he's supposed to be doing.

Recording the songs is equally businesslike. Brief - usually no more than one day - and "live," meaning you hear on his recordings what happens in the studio exactly as it happened. The first take may well be final; no wringing the life out of a song in pursuit of technical perfection. When Ralph declares "that felt pretty good," more often than not, after hearing the playback a time or maybe two, it's on to the next song.

"Sixteen Years" is no exception, recorded on one day, mixed and edited the next.

So why does this recording in the minds of many stand as perhaps the best work of this band - an unchanging unit for almost a decade? There is no ready explanation, but if one exists it begins with Ralph.

While not entirely comfortable with the recording process, during the making of this record he almost seems to be having fun. Curly Ray Cline and Jack Cooke, veterans both, are on top of their game. Nevertheless, the configuration of this band is relatively new. Despite the long hours, complacency is not an issue. And if it has any designs on this recording session, Ralph makes short work of thwarting it - not only by example, which is customary, but also with direct, spoken exhortations and admonitions, which is rare. At times he urges the band, in so many words, to stay alert. So part of the answer may lie here.

Or it could matter that Ralph produced and initially released this recording on his own rather than for a record company. Under no deadline and with no one looking over his shoulder, so to speak, he has no one to please but his fans and himself. Perhaps this freedom provides a lack of self-consciousness, at once energizing and relaxing him.

It might be the songs. Some have said the material on this recording is incredibly strong, even by Ralph's standards. If so, this is by happenstance, not design. With any recording, Ralph tries to put together the best songs he can find. But no doubt there are some great songs here and no recording can be better than its songs.

This sort of analysis is tempting and fun, but also fraught with folly. Who knows why music on a given day happens one way and not another? Maybe the stars align properly or lightening strikes. I don't know. I do know that one day in February a generation ago something pretty special happened. I was there . . . and I'm glad I was.

-Charlie Sizemore,
Nashville, Tennessee, 2009


Go To Top Of Page [1] John Wrights's "Traveling The High Way Home Book" (p258). NB: The Rounder reissue says ca1981 and includes the Charlie Sizemore "one day in February a generation ago" quote.