Don't Cry to Me
The Stanley Brothers
An Evening Long Ago: Live '56
Everyone in bluegrass -- hell, everyone in Nashville, for that matter -- has a Jimmy Martin story. Whether he's propped up on the arms of his handlers, threatening photographers or rivals, cackling or roaring, Jimmy Martin's life and times mirror his singing: violently dynamic, tried and tested by a voracious gulping at the cup of life. Martin's singing isn't just quintessential bluegrass -- though, know it or not, it's probably his arc and sway you think of when you think of the genre. It's the quintessential sound of burning, white-soul America.
Don't Cry To Me is a collection of mostly live recordings, spanning from 1954 to 2001, released by weirdo indie-rock safe house Thrill Jockey Records as the soundtrack to the Martin-documentary film King of Bluegrass. And as a musical illustration of Martin's, and the music's, turbulent path, it works. It starts in 1954 with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, featuring Martin's lead vocals on "On and On," moves through Martin's Sunny Mountain Boys on the Louisiana Hayride featuring an electrifying young J.D. Crowe on banjo, and some previously unreleased 1960 live recordings made by Mike Seeger.
But it's the 21st-century recordings that are perhaps the most exciting, proving Martin's invincible life force. "You Don't Know My Mind," recorded at the 2000 Bean Blossom festival, is a perfect song for Martin, all glissando leaps and cathartic yelps, and a lyrical "fuck you" to his detractors and the faithless, even if he sounds rough. (And from the immediate rush to the next song afterwards, he knows it.) Wait a few months: Later that year, Martin sang "Free Born Man" at home in Tennessee, and the result is barely controlled musical chaos. Blues, gospel, country, jazz, and folk holler -- Martin's assimilation of styles is now completely internalized, and he's pure Jimmy Martin. One could listen to Martin's vocal voodoo 40 times and still never know where he's going next. If your copy of this disc came with only "Free Born Man" and the following "Brakeman's Blues," on which Martin's voice overpowers every other sound in the county, it'd be worth whatever the price.
If Don't Cry To Me is the wail of American independence, An Evening Long Ago is a reminder that rural Southwestern Virginia, in 1956, was still only a few metaphorical miles and years removed from British soil. The Stanley Brothers, Ralph and Carter, sat before a microphone in the birthplace of what we now know as country music -- Bristol, Va. -- and made these 20 recordings in one take each. The soft, gothic mesh of the brothers' voices, the quiet picking of the guitars, Curly Lambert's mandolin and Ralph Mayo's fiddle, and the ancient, English and Scots-Irish derived narratives offered by songs such as "Come All You Tenderhearted" and "Poor Ellen Smith" -- these are truly still waters running deep.
An Evening Long Ago is American folk music of a dark and distant sort. If Bill Monroe's and Jimmy Martin's recordings resound for their modernization of folk music, directly incorporating blues and jazz and other styles, these Stanley Brothers recordings showcase something that, even in 1956, must've seemed far away to most. Yet even today, one can't escape a creeping suspicion that there's a secret within these songs that we've got to unravel -- that the dirge-like "Drifting Too Far From the Shore" contains a message in a bottle that will bob up onto our historical island and remind (or warn) us of something vital.
Beyond fingerprints from our forefathers and nostalgic waxing, however, An Evening Long Ago is impressive merely for the effortlessly soulful artistry of its creators. When, at the end of a gorgeously quiet and caressed harmony rendition of "East Virginia Blues," the brothers discuss that that was the "first time we've sung it in 15 years -- first time I guess we've ever sung it all the way through," many young singers might give up the ghost.
Studio-recorded bluegrass and folk music, like just about any acoustic music, is never more than a vague approximation of the music's live power. For anyone interested in American folk music, but not obsessive enough to have the roomful of bootlegs of a collector, these recordings make a glimpse at its depth and width easily accessible, exciting, and joyous.