NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Great Stuff From Ralph Stanley, Ronnie Milsap and James Hand

Old Dudes Provide Some Durable Music With Backbone

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

It’s reassuring to realize that some country music verities are surviving trends and fads in pop culture. Good music still endures, even if it doesn’t always sell in big SoundScan numbers. And durable artists can go on forever.

Three current examples are in my CD changer right now, and I find it a pleasure to play and savor each of them. The three artists don’t have much in common, except for the fact that they have stuck to their musical guns for decades and may be eventually rewarded by the nature of country music to honor musical integrity. There’s something to be said about the old dudes who hang around and get it done and keep the traditions intact.

First is Ralph Stanley, whose new A Distant Land to Roam: Songs of the Carter Family is a marvelous history-spanning window on and tribute to the early days of country music. The Carter Family are, of course, country music pioneers. It’s significant that Ralph Stanley and his late brother Carter were from the same part of the Clinch Mountains in Appalachia as the Carter Family and knew them.

Largely guitar-driven (as was the Carters’ music), this is enormously simple and yet dramatic music. The songs recall an era when historical events and social movements were captured in song. “Engine 143” is an epochal tale of a railroad run to doom. And such songs as an a capella version of “Motherless Children,” sung with the same powerful and haunting voice of eternity Stanley used to such great effect with “O Death,” is emphasized by a single mournful fiddle line. This is truly music for the ages.

This is the heart and soul of the great Appalachian music tradition, which descended from immigrants from the British Isles and which forged early country music.

Ronnie Milsap comes from several musical generations later when Southern blues and country started to flow together to create R&B and rock ’n’ roll. He was one of the first artists I saw perform live when I started visiting Nashville in the early ’70s. Then recently arrived from Memphis, he and his group were ensconced as the house band at Roger Miller’s King of the Road motel’s jumping penthouse nightclub. And it was the hottest show in town. He was still doing some rocking R&B that was starting to lean toward country. Then he launched into a long and successful country recording career that yielded 35 No. 1 singles on the Billboard chart. His first RCA Nashville album was released in 1973, and it’s reassuring to see that his new album My Life (due June 27) is also on RCA Nashville.

His fluent and fluid piano-based music has endured very well, as evidenced by his very satisfying recent CMT Crossroads concert with Los Lonely Boys. And My Life serves him very well and showcases his still-powerful voice. The title song, written by Catt Gravitt, Gerald O’Brien and Pamela K. Rose, has him singing a heartfelt refrain, “I wanna leave this place with a smile on my face/Knowin’ what’s in my heart didn’t just stay in my heart/And whatever heaven gave me/I wanna know I gave it all back.”

The rest of the album is composed of songs written by such veteran country song scribes as Glen Clark, Dean Dillon, Bob DiPiero, Scotty Emerick, Craig Wiseman, Wally Wilson, Rivers Rutherford and Cathy Majeski. Good stuff.

Finally, there’s the Texan James Hand, who is just really starting to get national recognition at age 53. There’s a whole bunch of guys and a few women like him who have hung around Texas forever. They’re not driven to stardom or to Nashville but are very content to play their own music for themselves and for their friends and neighbors in their neighborhood bars and honky-tonks.

James Hand’s voice is like a well-worn glove that you slip on easily. He has been around the block a few times and knows most everything but doesn’t talk about all of it. What he does sing about is everyday life and issues. Check out The Truth Will Set You Free, his Rounder Records album, on his Web site. Listen to, say, “In the Corner, At the Table, By the Jukebox” as just one cut and see what you think. If you love Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, you will embrace Hand’s music. I’m not saying he’s their equal, because no one is. But he eerily evokes their spirit. If you’ve never heard Hank or Lefty, shame on you, but think about exploring Hand, who’s a walking modern-day ghost of ’50s country music.