In 1971, Ralph Stanley was one of the most respected and venerable figures in bluegrass, but in those days that only mattered so much. Bluegrass wasn't making much of an impression on the sales charts as the Nashville sound held sway, and even the biggest stars of the genre were a long way from wealthy. So Stanley, one of the true founding fathers of the music, was playing any festival or venue that would have him, and recording for several labels at once to keep product flowing. One of those labels was Jessup Records, a tiny outfit run by a jukebox distributor in Jackson, Michigan, and in 1971 and 1973, Stanley and his group the Clinch Mountain Boys
cut a pair of albums for the label. However, Stanley's brief tenure with Jessup also coincided with an interesting period in his group's lineup -- a pair of teenage kids who were passionate bluegrass fans and precocious instrumentalists made Stanley's acquaintance, and soon Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley were touring and recording with the Clinch Mountain Boys. Skaggs and Whitley appeared on Stanley's two albums for Jessup, and The Complete Jessup Recordings Plus!
reissues Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys Sing Michigan Bluegrass
and Gospel Echoes of the Stanley Brothers
in full, as well as Tribute to the Stanley Brothers
, another small-label album Skaggs and Whitley recorded with Stanley and his group shortly before joining the Clinch Mountain Boys. None of this material rises to the level of a lost classic -- according to the liner notes by Colin Escott
, these albums were recorded quickly and inexpensively, and one was knocked out in an afternoon while Stanley and the group waited to play their set at a bluegrass festival. But Stanley always held his group to a high standard, and if these recordings are typical for the group in this era, they're also quite good -- Stanley's vocals and banjo work have plenty of gravitas, and as he was already a 25-year music biz veteran at this point, he leads his group with a sure hand. Skaggs was already a solid and imaginative mandolin player, though he doesn't get a great deal of room to solo, and Whitley's vocals on Tribute to the Stanley Brothers
are the work of a teenager still learning the ropes, but his talent and feel for the music are obvious. Given the circumstances under which these albums were recorded, the audio is consistently good if not outstanding, and the musicians spin through the older material with conviction, while making the most of the new tunes on Michigan Bluegrass
(none of which have anything in particular to do with the Mitten State). Not essential, but valuable as a historical document and plenty enjoyable as a listening experience.