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Listening to the death-haunted strains of the Stanley Brothers, you find it hard to believe that Carter and Ralph were ever young men at all: They always sounded as old as the hills. But they were fresh-faced mountain punks barely out of their teens when they helped Bill Monroe forge his revolutionary music back in the ’40s. Their first recordings, made for the independent Rich-R-Tone label, were regionally distributed 78s that have been out of print for years; collectors like WAMU DJ Dick Spottswood lent their copies for this brilliant CD reissue on John Fahey’s new Revenant label. Lovers of the classic ’50s Stanley sound on Mercury should be warned that these sessions reveal a blatant attempt to imitate the Monroe band’s early bluegrass style. However, this is by no means a bad thing: Their lightning-fast (and note-for-note) cover of Monroe’s “Molly and Tenbrooks” is one of the most exciting performances they ever waxed, right down to the spine-tingling backwoods yelps (which out-whoop Bill’s more patrician airs). Even so, the best songs here reveal the Stanleys already staking out their own musical terrain. Carter’s “Little Glass of Wine” provides a masterfully flat version of the grimmest of the stoical psychodramas that became the Stanleys’ trademark. And by the last session, Ralph’s old-time clawhammer banjo picking and wheezing vocals on “Little Birdie” showed a willful retreat into the past, as the group began to hone folk impulses to the level of original and lasting art. Like all of the Stanleys’ work, Earliest Recordings is essential bedrock American music.

—Eddie Dean