Ten bluegrass albums that will change your world

Bluegrass might be the punk version of country.
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THE STANLEY BROTHERS – The Complete Columbia Stanley Brothers – 1996

The Stanley Brothers are the third pillar of bluegrass, along with Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. Carter and Ralph came out of rural Virginia and launched their careers after the War. Carter’s magnificent voice, and the harmony provided by Ralph’s high tenor, quickly became their trademark. They formed their band – the Clinch Mountain Boys – and grew so popular that they were signed by Columbia in the late 1950s. (A move which prompted an angry Monroe to leave the label.)

Though their sound grew more complex after leaving Columbia for Mercury a few years later, this collection of their 22 Columbia releases is about as good an introduction to the formative days of bluegrass as you will find. Their playing got better and better, but those voices are what make the Stanleys an essential part of bluegrass. Just give a listen to “The Lonesome River.”

Carter’s mournful lead carries the verse before Ralph's soaring harmonies raise goosebumps on the chorus. The voices bend and curve around each other in ways that few vocal groups have ever managed, regardless of genre. When they sing entire songs together -- as on "Little Glass of Wine” or “The Drunkard’s Hell,” you could swear those voices are emerging from the same source.

Carter was a heavy drinker and liver disease took him away in the mid-‘60s, when he was barely 40 years old. Ralph forged on for many more decades, playing a crucial role on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack that would introduce bluegrass to a brand new generation.