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Collectors of bluegrass and old-time music are blessed with an embarrassment of riches. The problem isn’t finding recordings of the music they love; it’s finding collections that show unfamiliar sides of long-familiar artists. So the 14 heartbreaking, casually beautiful cuts on the Stanley Brothers’ Earliest Recordings: The Complete Rich-R-Tone 78s (1947–1952) are notable not just for their rarity but for the light they shine on Carter and Ralph Stanley’s path from their roots in the Virginia mountains to bluegrass stardom. “Death is only a dream,” the brothers insist in a number of the same name, driving their point home in eerily perfect harmony that is the product of shared boyhood bedrooms and shared DNA. Yet, in many ways, this collection is the story of a death—or, at the very least, a marked transition for the Stanleys. These first recordings, made in four separate sessions over five years for the Tennessee-based Rich-R-Tone label, show early stages in the brothers’ evolution from the raw, spare sound they’d made popular on the radio in such songs as “Little Maggie” and “Mother No Longer Awaits Me at Home” toward more polished Flatt and Scruggs–esque fare like “Little Birdie.” Purists may weep for the pathos that was lost as the boys abandoned the old, weird world of “Our Darling’s Gone” for the fingerpicked virtuosity of this compilation’s version of “Are You Waiting Just for Me?” but why engage their tedious less-is-more rhetoric? What’s interesting is watching the Stanleys walk, then run, then dance from Point A to Point B. Though Earliest Recordings’ sequencing jumbles the narrative a bit—material recorded in the ’40s alternates with songs from the ’50s, and the disc concludes with a track from the Stanleys’ first session—the core story is clear: two sons venturing beyond the homestead, carrying their mountain music into the valleys, honoring their traditional craft by becoming part of its evolution. Armed with new style and technique, the Stanleys were both looking back and moving forward. —Justin Moyer