The Late and Great Carl Story: 1916-1995
review by Art Menius for Music Boulevard 1996
When Carl Story died last spring, he had been a string band leader for most of the past sixty-one years. Despite his billing as “The Father of Bluegrass Gospel” and a stint as fiddler for Bill Monroe during the pre-Earl Scruggs period, Story only adopted a full-blown bluegrass line-up during the mid-1950s, after Elvis changed the world. From his start in the music business at age 18 with banjoist Johnnie Whisnant, the North Carolinian fronted a good old fashioned country string band.
He had added banjo by the time he and the Ramblin’ Mountaineers recorded the Starday cuts featured on The Late and Great Carl Story: 1916-1995. Yet one hears electric guitar now and then, mixed with vocal arrangements that owe as much to Southern gospel and Bill Monroe. Touring mostly in the south, sometimes the midwest, Story also worked syndicated radio and local TV. Story achieved the paradox of being, within a three or four state area, better known outside bluegrass circles than virtually any bluegrass artist, while becoming but a cult figure, a legendary pioneer, in the bluegrass world itself. He did what he needed to survive in the music business. That often doesn’t lead to long term career development moves.
More significant proved the effects, which hurt many other second tier bluegrass artists of his generation, of having been a country major label artist forced to survive on indies after the prime of his career. That’s also after rock ‘n’ roll, TV, and countrypolitan. Mercury last reissued an album of his very best work in 1964. Columbia never issued other than on 78 the 14 mostly secular sides he cut for them. That meant that Story did not have his finest, most creative work available when the bluegrass festivals wrought a sea change in the audience for that music. He seemed too rural, too old-fashioned for many new fans weaned on the Country Gentlemen, Seldom Scene, and New Grass Revival. His live performances lacked the challenge of Monroe or the ethereal quality of Ralph Stanley. Only in 1980s did foreign and semi-bootleg labels begin reissuing his superior work. The people who loved Carl Story continued to enjoy his music, but that audience did not grow.
Starday, for whom Story recorded from the late 1950s well into the 1960s, however, has regularly recycled their catalog. The Late and Great brings to compact disk a tradition that by my count includes at least 15 albums. While not up to the standards of his earlier work, these 14 gospel selections contain some pretty good stuff. The compelling “Angel Band” appeared in 1957, the same year as his last final Mercury single. A good “Unclouded Day” came out on a 1962 EP. Most of these would seem to be 1960s album tracks. The maybe 300 words of liner notes provide not a clue. I would assume the band members scattered across these songs include Lee & Bruce, the Jones Brothers, Tater Tate, Claude Boone, and the Brewster Brothers.
Most of the titles are covers of bluegrass and country gospel classics, but so were most of his singles of the time. “He Will Set Your Fields On Fire” projects a powerful pulse that compares well to any recording of the song. It remained in my head long after even the first listening. It and “Angel Band” provide the highlights of the project. “Cabin in Gloryland,” “Cry Holy Unto the Lord,” and “Shake My Mothers Hand For Me” all come across convincingly and remain enjoyable listening. “Gone Home” and “How Beautful Heaven Must Be” deliver honest, effective country gospel singing. On the other hand, “Daddy Sang Bass,” inexplicably the lead track, seems insincere, and “Precious Memories” has received far better treatments.
Little care seems to have gone into preparing the masters for reissue. The Late and Great Carl Story sounds like old Starday album masters transferred on to CD. At times the sound proves inadequate.
The Late and Great Carl Story assembles ten or so quite enjoyable gospel songs from the decade just after his strongest period. A little more care in production and choice of material could have made a very nice record. The real shame is that Carl Story’s far better Columbia and Mercury singles have not reached the digital age.