Don Rigsby is an institution in bluegrass circles, with a career which has taken in solo releases, work with Tony Rice, JD Crowe, John Fogerty and many more, and awards from various bodies across the world. But perhaps the greatest influence on Don has been the one person who has influenced bluegrass and traditional mountain music more than anyone else, Dr Ralph Stanley.
After growing up listening to Dr Ralph’s music, Don has found his own path through the music, often coming into contact with the great man, as well as past Clinch Mountain Boys Ricky Skaggs and the late Keith Whitley. Now, Rigsby brings his powerful voice, mandolin and guitar playing to his new record, Doctor’s Orders: A Tribute To Ralph Stanley.
The album is a fitting précis of Dr Ralph’s career, being made up of songs that Dr Ralph recorded, made famous, and which somehow fit his life, career and music. Rigsby performs them with respect and aplomb, helped out by the great man himself, who makes occasional appearances to provide backing vocals, alongside Clinch Mountain Boys past and present James Alan Shelton (guitar), Steve Sparkman (banjo), as well as Ron Stewart (fiddle), and Barry Bales (acoustic bass).
The Mountain Doctor, which leads off the album, is the only new piece, not previously recorded by Stanley. With a sweet, rolling sweet, rolling accompaniment and a musical device echoing Ralph’s Clinch Mountain Backstep, this makes for a neat opening number. Don’s voice stakes its claim early on, espousing music’s ability to cure all ills. The banjo fills on the cut are definitely styled after Stanley’s unique style, and The Mountain Doctor sums up the album even as it begins.
Jesse Winchester’s Brand New Tennessee Waltz is an interesting view of how songs and traditions get updated (there seems to be a ‘Waltz’, and a ‘New Waltz’ (and now a ‘Brand New Waltz’) for near enough every state in the South), and the less well-known The Daughter Of Geronimo shows off the band’s rhythm, timing, touch, as well as Dr Ralph’s still-fine tenor vocals.
Don himself commits to the project wholeheartedly, lending his soul and no-inconsiderable musical chops to songs like Wild Geese Fly Again, and one of Dr Ralph’s most famous songs, Little Maggie, which is treated to a close, respectful version, with both voice and instrumentation clear.
Home In The Mountains, and especially I Only Exist, show the album reaching its apex. The themes of the former – home and family, resonate due to the type of music on display, but due to Dr Ralph’s long career and advanced age. There is an incredible amount of feeling in the words, delivery and music of the latter.
Sinner Man’s unaccompanied ‘medly’ of the features of other songs can be taken together as an appraisal of the vitally important gospel part of the Dr’s career, and Six More Miles and Walking Up This Hill On Decoration Day are by turns rousing (the former ) and reverential (the latter) looks at coming to terms with the loss of loved one.
Tennessee Truck Driving Man picks the pace back up in its tribute to industry and hard work, with some fine fast, well played breaks and some classic sounding banjo and fiddle. The Bailes Brothers’ Traveling The Highway Home is the perfect end to the record, which, far from being a maudlin ‘tribute’, is a positive and joyous celebration of the life and contribution of one of America’s truly great musical icons.