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Album Review: Ralph Stanley II – This One Is Two

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A traditional country album laced with bluegrass sensibilities, This One Is Two is neither glamorous nor expected—among names like Randy Travis and Patty Loveless, both of whom released outstanding new entries this year, I daresay few people would have thought the best country album of the 2008 to-date would emerge from southwest Virginia at the hands of a bluegrass legend’s son.

That, however, is exactly what Ralph Stanley II has delivered–This One Is Two is a brilliantly written album that showcases a series of choice covers, all of which the singer offers with a calm confidence and a mournful drawl that underlines even the record’s upbeat material, like the rolling Tom T. and Dixie Hall track “Train Songs.”

Many so-called traditional albums sound like direct rebuttals to mainstream country, as if they exist specifically as a counterpoint to the commercialized “pop country” that dominates the genre’s attention. But in trying to record a “traditional” country or “real” country album, artists often become so obsessed with style over substance–thinking that style in itself is substance–that the music no longer feels real or relevant. Traditional country for the sake of traditional country entirely misses the point–it is the rawness and emotional honesty upon which traditional country is built which makes the music engaging, not simply the fact that it utilizes crying steel guitar as opposed to loud-ringing electric solos.

Stanley has not missed the point here, on what can be described as an album that aspires to be nothing other than what it is—wholeheartedly country and bathed in a classic sound that beckons his musical heritage. From the first twang-laden note he sings on the album’s opening track “Cold Shoulder”–which was co-penned by Garth Brooks and appears on his 1991 smash Ropin’ The Wind–it is abundantly clear that there’s not a drop of pop in this singer’s blood.

The album’s greatest strength, however, is its focus. This One Is Two is a cohesive collection of songs that not only speak to emotional truths, but which work together as an exercise in juxtaposition. “L.A. County” (Lyle Lovett) and “They Say I’ll Never Go Home”–which appear back-to-back–both find the singer on the wrong side of the law, in one case innocent but wrongfully sentenced and facing his death, in the other blatantly guilty but taking his own life. Likewise, the album contrasts the unique love of a mother in “Moms Are The Reasons Wildflowers Grow,” with the very different kind of love offered by a barroom beauty in “Loretta” (Townes Van Zandt).

This One Is Two is an album filled with heaven, hell, the road, trains, honky-tonks, mama, longing for home, a little bit of love and a whole lot of heartbreak—all parts which make up the heart of country music. It is not an album for the post-Idol crowd—those people who say they like country, as long as it’s not too twangy; those people who say they like country as long as it’s not slow and sad; those people who say they like country, so long as it’s not too, well, country.

And I’m exceptionally thankful for that because it is, nonetheless, a remarkable record–one made for those of us who not only appreciate but crave all of the above.

Jim Malec is a journalist whose work has appeared in American Songwriter, Country Weekly, Denver Westword and others. He is the founder of American Noise and former Managing Editor of The 9513.

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