Although the wind ripped and the temperature was deterring, the warm glows of smiles and camaraderie lit up Carrboro’s The ArtsCenter on Friday night as Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys prepared to take the stage. Stanley, now 85 years of age has been a pioneer in bluegrass music since the mid 1940’s, and while his age was certainly evident on Friday, it was simply magical to witness a man who has seen and done so much for his genre deliver a performance in such an intimate venue.
I am a huge bluegrass fan. However like most of my generation I was only familiar with Stanley’s more recent commercial successes like the music from the motion picture O Brother Where Art Thou, released in 2002. The film’s soundtrack stands alone in my own collection as my favorite score ever composed in conjunction with a movie. Given that Ralph’s career has been so all encompassing and successful, I was interested to see if the band would cater to a few of the younger members of the audience in performing music from the picture. To my immediate pleasure, the Clinch Mountain Boys and their stage general Stanley opened the show with a ripping version of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” a favorite from the soundtrack and a good way to get right down to business.
Stanley stood stoic, amidst his brethren, clad in a burgundy collar shirt shining out with rhinestones from the cusps, donning a massive but appropriate white cowboy hat. The dichotomy between family generations was special as well, as the grandson of Ralph, 20 year old Nathan Stanley stood to the right where he could both assist his grandfather on lyrical errors, and strum the lead guitar. Ralph was candid from the get-go regarding his age and stature, begging the audience’s forgiveness should he flub a few lines here and there. While the candor was nice, it was unnecessary due to the reciprocal appreciation for one another between the performers and the attendees. This jubilance was spilling out of the grins from everyone in the room, band-mates included, as the show moved onwards.
I have always been attracted to unique voices. I listen to quite a wide range of music, spanning the genres of world beat all the way to psychedelic rock and roll, but despite a specific genre of favor, truly special vocalists appeal to my ear immediately, right after a first word is uttered into a microphone. Some favorites of mine who exhibit this quality, for example, are the likes of Jerry Garcia, Eddie Vedder, Paul Simon and Tracy Chapman. Folks, let me tell you all, the voice I heard bellow out of Ralph Stanley on Friday evening stands alone. While the bluegrass legend is most known for his banjo skills, arthritis has severely limited his ability to pick his patented “Stanley Style” 5 string banjo in recent years. Thus, Stanley has self admittedly focused most of his prowess on his singing voice, and it shows. It echoes with the grit and harshness indicative of longing and struggle, yet it is smooth and inviting, impossible to turn away from, like Medusa and her serpents.
Most notably on this eve Stanley’s rendition of “O Death,” another classic from the O Brother Where Art Tho soundtrack, left me dumbstruck. The song is slow and lyrical, a tale of a man pleading with death to “spy me over for another year.” Coming from the now 85 year old Ralph Stanley, and accompanied only by the soft undertones of the fiddle, the song was melodically sobering and just beautiful to take in. I stood next to my comrade (and Chapelboro editor) Jordan Rogers in complete silence along with the rest of the room as Stanley belted out the lyrics for what will be a performance I shall not soon forget. “O Death” reminds me of the painful but beautiful process that life’s ending can be, and witnessing it live in this setting only reinforced my appreciation for the tune and for Stanley’s proficiency.
I was happy to see Ralph pick up the banjo, if only for a few numbers, and his strumming on the bluegrass staple “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” put the cap on a wonderful evening. However, eager to entertain, the Clinch Mountain Boys took requests from the audience for a solid half an hour in what would be the true exclamation point to the show. An acapella rendering of “Amazing Grace” was soothing to the soul, followed by my personal favorite Ralph Stanley song “Angel Band.” I had seen the number performed previously by vaunted Allman Brothers Band guitarist Warren Haynes, who also possesses a heavenly set of vocal chords; however, this original delivery from Stanley almost induced tears from my eyes. The song is mainly a harmony, and with Ralph taking the lead I cannot remember a time when I felt so privileged and grateful to be in attendance.
The show concluded in raucous applause, hootin’ and hollerin’. Jordan and I were sent back out into the cold night, our spirits now warmed Clinch Mountain Boys style. As we sat at Tyler’s Taproom sipping a night cap and continuing to warm our spirits with more spirits, our conversation never strayed from how special of an event we had just taken in. The ArtsCenter delivered big time in its billing of Ralph Stanley, and young listeners like me came away with a true index for bluegrass regality, and musical innovation as a whole.
Ralph Stanely and the Clinch Mountain Boys was the opening show of The ArtsCenter’s 10th Annual American Roots Series. You can find all the January show listings on Chapelboro’s Calendar or at The ArtsCenter.
You can follow Charles on Twitter @This_Is_Bones