Just walked in the door from a nine hour trip back from North Georgia (Hiawassee for the geographically curious) where family and friends once again celebrated my sister Argen’s wedding anniversary with bluegrass music, barbeque, and beverages of choice. Argen’s husband, Mike Johnson, whom I am proud to call “Bro,” built the neck to my Gibson banjo many long years ago. I now have a copy of that very neck on my Stelling Murphyflower, complete with arched fingerboard.
I was in so many good jams sessions over the long weekend that my fingers are still smarting! All were excellent in their own ways, but one of my favorite was Saturday morning when I got out the guitar and Red got out the mandolin and he and I sang a bunch of oldie moldies that we used to do probably before Casey and Chris were even born. I’m talking about what Eddie Stubbs calls “deep catalog,” primarily from the Stanley Brothers. Songs like “Little Glass of Wine,” “Lonely Tombs,” and “Mother No Longer Awaits Me At Home.” Songs where morbidity reigns and someone always dies.
Then we got Casey (who was sitting there listening, deeply engrossed in Jane Eyre), to lead us in “Next Sunday Darling Is My Birthday” whose title sounds like it could be happy (Birthday party! Cake! Ice Cream! Presents!) but whose chorus actually goes:
While friends are singing Happy Birthday,
There’ll be a smile upon my face;
But when they’re gone the smile will vanish,
A broken heart will take its place.
That song is on the classic Stanley Brothers album Sweeter Than The Flowers which has just been released on CD. That’s one of my all-time favorite LPs and I’ve been listening to it religiously in the car. So naturally we had to do the title number, another song about death and dying, which I kicked off on guitar, trying hard to sound like George Shuffler. (And failing miserably, but having fun trying!)
Which finally provoked son Chris to ask us to do something a bit less dreary. So we launched into “S-A-V-E-D” (“it’s g-l-o-r-y to know I’m s-a-v-e-d, I’m h-a-p-p-y- because I’m f-r-double e”) followed by “Keep on the Sunny Side.”
His asking for some happy songs reminded me of a time when Red and I had a regular Wednesday night gig here in Winchester in the basement of Brill’s Barber Shop (where I still teach). The crowd was small so we decided to entertain ourselves by doing a bunch of songs that we really, really enjoyed singing. (Not particularly professional, but we were among friends.) Most of these, like “White Dove” and “Rank Strangers” were profoundly sad and usually included the demise of at least one person. Sometimes two. We were having the best time, and didn’t realize how our choice of material might be perceived by the audience till someone came up to us on the break and said, “You all seem so sad. Who died?” I tried hard to reassure them that these were the songs we sang when we were feeling good!
What is it about these sad songs that are so much fun to sing? For me it’s the incredible harmony the Stanley Brothers come up with, something we always try to replicate with varying degrees of success. If you are among the brave and the strong, you might want to venture into Stanley Brothers territory and listen to some of their gut-wrenching recordings. But be forewarned: These are not for the faint of heart! If you’re new to bluegrass and still in your Alison Krauss/Rhonda Vincent/Cherryholmes phase, you might want to wait a few years. But for some of us, the best bluegrass jam sessions always include a hefty dose of Ralph and Carter, the Stanley Brothers.