The influence that The Stanley Brothers had in the music world can’t be overemphasized. Their songs “Angel Band” and “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” remain significant even up to the present. Another concrete indication that the bluegrass duo is indeed powerful is their recording of the song “Rank Stranger” that went up to the National Recording Registry’s list in 2008. Many artists have covered the classic tune countless times but it was The Stanley Brothers’ version that has stood out. Their simple yet effective treatment to the song has been the most essential contributing factor for it to become the definitive cover of “Rank Stranger.”
Despite gaining a strong association with the singer-songwriter duo, this old-time tune did not originate from them. It’s actually one of the compositions of the prolific writer of gospel songs, Albert E. Brumley, Sr. You probably heard about him as the author of other notable gospel tunes such as “I’ll Fly Away” and “Turn the Radio On.” Although the song was composed in 1942, it reached its defining moment sometime in 1960 after The Stanley Brothers recorded it in vinyl format. Later that year, they released their recording of the song on their album Sacred Songs from the Hill. Since their record, “Rank Stranger” has become a Bluegrass music standard. Accordingly, a couple of bluegrass musicians displayed an interest in recording the song. Ricky Skaggs and Bob Dylan were among the notable artists from bluegrass genre who covered the tune.
About the Song
There have been various interpretations of the song made. Others considered it as a soldier song where the narrator is a wayfaring veteran of the Civil War. He’s returning home from the battle and realized how much of an alien his world has become. Hence the lines,
Everybody I met
Seemed to be a rank stranger
No mother or dad
Not a friend could I see
Some also interpreted its meaning more on the spiritual level. The narrator’s return refers to his spiritual restoration and reckoning instead of a bodily reappearance to a physical place.
Certainly, “Rank Stranger” is a song denoting death or an afterlife journey. As the lyrics of the song go,
They’ve all moved away
To a beautiful land by the bright crystal sea
Some beautiful day I’ll meet them in heaven
Where no one will be a stranger to me
Let us to The Stanley Brothers’ performance of “Rank Stranger” below.
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Albert E. Brumley, Rank Stranger, The Stanley Brothers
My father was the recording engineer on that version.