Imagine being defined by your voice all your life and then discovering that your voice is gone. At some point, all singers who keep at it long enough have to face this inevitability and make a choice: keep singing as they always have and accept that their vocals will never again be as physically or emotionally powerful as before, or change their singing style to accommodate the limitations of their new voices.
This is an artistic predicament that could literally leave a singer breathless. Just ask mountain music patriarch Ralph Stanley. After close to 75 years of smoky clubs and constant use, Stanley's gale-force tenor has certainly been tamed. However, it's still strong enough to knock your hat off, especially when there are enough pauses between phrases for Stanley to get a running start.
On Clinch Mountain Sweethearts, Stanley teams up with 16 female country singers. A few are dealing with altered voices themselves (sometimes for the better -- Maria Muldaur and Joan Baez have never sounded so soulful), while others are in their vocal prime (including Gillian Welch, Pam Tillis, Sara Evans, and Lucinda Williams). Stanley shines, regardless of the partner. His haunting tone might be raspy with age, but it's also more textured. And when he raises his voice in pleading harmony with Iris DeMent's bittersweet twang on two numbers, it reminds the listener that distinctive singers such as Stanley possess a numinous tone that even time can have trouble dimming.