Since his participation on the Grammy-winning soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? gave his commercial profile a significant boost, “Doctor” Ralph Stanley has released a series of albums that have ranked among the richest of his legendary career. A Mother’s Prayer, his first new studio recording since 2007’s Mountain Preacher’s Child, finds the 84-year-old Stanley and his ace backing band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, delving even further into the traditions of Appalachian folk and gospel. Though the album lacks any real surprises, A Mother’s Prayer reaffirms Stanley’s unrivaled expertise with the music of his unique niche.
The focus of the songs on A Mother’s Prayer is both traditional and original Southern gospel hymns, with Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys crafting careful arrangements that balance a respect for the songs’ reserved subject matter and the tendency of bluegrass artists to show off their technical chops. The lovely title track, written by Ronnie Bowman and Shawn Lane, gives Stanley an opportunity to shine on a simple testament to family and faith, while his reading of the traditional “Are You Washed in the Blood” is a spirited, uptempo rendition that showcases the singer’s feistiness.
What keeps the album from ranking among the best of Stanley’s late-career renaissance is that it’s the first album on which the deterioration of his voice truly has an adverse effect on the performances. Stanley’s powerhouse, straight-from-the-holler tenor has long been one of his primary calling cards, but there’s simply no hiding the breaks in his voice or the overall frailty in his singing on “It’s Time to Wake Up” and “Come Ye Tenderhearted.” There are some terrific songs here (Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator” is a standout), and Stanley’s band remains one of the finest in the business, but the lingering impression that A Mother’s Prayer leaves is that it could have been a real knockout were Stanley still anywhere near his peak.