Review - Ralph Stanley
Ralph Stanley and His Clinch Mountain Boys
WAMC Performing Arts Studio, March 15
If you saw the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, you may recall the KKK rally scene where a shrouded Klansman sings the Appalachian dirge “O Death.” That was the weather-beaten but soaring voice of 81-year-old Ralph Stanley, one of a handful of first-generation bluegrass musicians still active. While Stanley’s show last Saturday at a two-thirds full Linda Norris auditorium was real-deal bluegrass played with panache, it never strayed off the beaten track of old standards. But then again, bluegrass tends to be less about the song itself than how it’s performed, and here, for the most part, Stanley and company delivered the time-honored goods.
began performing with his brother Carter in 1946 as the Stanley Brothers
band (Carter died in 1966, after which Ralph regrouped with the Clinch
Mountain Boys), Ralph made his mark as one the few tenors whose singing
could rival Bill Monroe, the father of the genre, and as a banjoist
whose picking could compare with Earl Scruggs. Now, in addition to Dewey
Brown on fiddle, James Shelton on lead guitar, Bill Monroe alumnus Jack
Cooke on bass and Steve Sparkman on banjo (Stanley broke his hip in 1994
and now seldom performs on the banjo), the family tradition has
continued with son Ralph Stanley II on rhythm guitar and grandson Nathan
Stanley on mandolin. Neither, though, sang as well as the patriarch, who
can still swoop up to his trademark high notes despite his years.
The show was bookended with celeritous fiddle showpieces smoothly sawed out by Dewy Brown: “Lee Highway Blues” was the opener and “Orange Blossom Special,” with its daunting figure-eight bowing, the closer. After Brown’s solo, Jack Cooke sang tenor lead on “Sitting on Top of the World.” Next to Ralph Sr., Cooke’s vocals were the best in the band. Cooke also had the role of class clown, feigning drunkenness throughout the evening by pretending to stagger and slur his words.
Alan Shelton then offered a whistle-clean flat-picking guitar solo, the reel “Soldier’s Joy.” His guitar, unfortunately, was to spend the night buried in the mix. Later, mandolin genius and area resident Frank Wakefield, who briefly played with the Stanley Brothers when he was 19, sat in for a couple of numbers, including a way-cool instrumental, Bill Monroe’s “Bluegrass Stomp.”
For the second half of the show, the band took requests—I’d never seen an entire set played by anyone this way. The audience shook the tree, and chestnuts like “Pretty Polly” and “Rank Strangers” rained down before the group finally encored with another, “Little Maggie.”
Let’s hope Ralph Stanley comes back again soon.
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