Ralph Stanley: the Papaw of Bluegrass

Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys

Continuing his 66-year long legacy in old timey mountain music, Ralph Stanley proved to be the Papaw of bluegrass.  Backed by the five talented Clinch Mountain Boys, including his grandson and front man guitarist Nathan Stanley, Dr. Stanley and his skillful musicians played to a devoted sold-out audience at The ArtCenter last night. Ralph opened the first set standing coolly between the band members and leading the vocals on the popular “Man of Constant Sorrow.”

Although arthritis has limited his playing abilities, he did pick up the banjo for a couple of tunes, much to the enjoyment of his fans.  In his 85th year, his weathered voice reached the sliding notes of the harmonies effortlessly.  They played songs that showcased each musician including fiddler Dewey Brown, “Stanley Style” banjo player Mitchell Van Dyke, guitarist James A. Shelton, new bassist Randall Hibbitts, and lead vocalist and guitarist Nathan Stanley.   20 year-old Nathan possessed a velvety smooth voice that presided over the night.

An anticipated moment was Ralph Stanley’s a cappella rendition of “O Death” which echoed in the hushed theater.  He finished the last line of the song  “won’t you spare me over ‘til another year,” with a light-hearted addition of a sung “thank you.”  This was received with laughter from the crowd and was an example of his sense of humor, which was evident through his subtle comments during the night.

Another highlight included the debut of an original song by Nathan Stanley, “My Papaw, My Hero, My Best Friend,” a poignant tribute to Ralph as a music legend and a loving grandpa.  Other songs to note include, “John Henry,” “Mountain Dew,” “Little Birdie,” “Bound to Ride,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Angel Band,” “Pretty Polly,” and “A Robin Built a Nest on Daddy’s Grave” along with a cappella versions of “Gloryland” and “Amazing Grace.”  They finished with the rousing “Orange Blossom Special” and an encore of “Worried Man Blues.”

His legacy in bluegrass music can always be enjoyed by listeners worldwide via his many albums, but watching him live was an experience I am grateful for and never will forget.  I’ll especially remember how he stood calmly and still, often with one hand in his pocket, emanating the ageless confidence of an original rock star.