Ralph Stanley is not going away anytime soon. Not on his own, anyway.
Stanley, the 86-year-old bluegrass patriarch, showed up at the Birchmere on Sunday for what was billed as his last area appearance. But at the end of the night, Stanley said the demise of his performing career, which began in 1946, had been greatly exaggerated — by him. “I meant it at the time,” Stanley said of the retirement announcement he’d made before the current tour started just days ago. “But I’ve decided to leave it up to the good Lord.”
Many folks in the sold-out club surely bought tickets out of fear it would be the last time they’d hear the old-timey icon live. His grandson Nathan Stanley, frontman of the current incarnation of Stanley’s backup band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, tried to reassure the flock that there was no intention to hoodwink anybody into making an unnecessary purchase. Stanley really was on a farewell tour, Nathan said, only now this one officially has “no end date.”
By the time Stanley confessed his desire to stay in show biz, he’d proved he still belongs, having put in nearly three hours of work, with two sets sandwiching an
autograph-signing and merchandise-selling intermission. He would go back to the lobby for more glad-handing after the second set.
Stanley paced himself to get through the multiple shifts. He plain sat out many songs while the band played and sang, and he rarely handled lead vocals — exceptions being a capella versions of “Amazing Grace” and “O Death.” His voice isn’t nearly as robust or rangy as it was even a few years ago, yet it’s as interesting as ever. “O Death,” which became his signature tune after its appearance on the blockbuster soundtrack of the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” has always been ominous. But his current rasp makes the song powerfully terrifying. The response from the crowd was so raucous that Stanley restarted the song three times, hoping to meet demand. Stanley’s harmonizing provided several high-lonesome thrills. As his reprise of “Angel Band” proved, even if he doesn’t hit high notes like he once did, Stanley still does lonesome as good as anyone ever has.
Entertainment has always been a family affair for the Stanleys; Ralph got his start performing as the Stanley Brothers with his elder sibling Carter Stanley, who died of alcohol-induced liver problems in 1966. At the Birchmere, his kin stepped forward whenever Stanley rested up. His son, Ralph Stanley II, is no longer a full-time member of the touring troupe, but he came on to sing “Bluefield,” a tune Ralph Jr. wrote and recently recorded. The song had all the bluegrass touchstones found in his dad’s classics: moonshine, murder and a stint on death row. Then Nathan gave a sweet sermon about his grandpa: “I’ve lived with him my whole life, and I take care of him and he takes care of me,” he said, inciting a chorus of awwws from the audience. Nathan followed the speech with a tune called “Papaw I Love You,” which he’d written in tribute to his grandfather.
As with any authentic bluegrass show, there were as many sales pitches and corn-pone jokes coming from the stage as there were songs. Ralph Sr. stood with his hands clasped in front of him while the Clinch Mountain Boys took turns hawking several upcoming festival appearances and pushing CDs from every member of the band. New bass player Randall Hibbitts was the only performer with no merch to move. “If you want his records,” fiddler Dewey Brown said of Hibbitts, “you’ll have to go down to the county courthouse.” Here’s hoping that sort of humor sticks around at least as long as Ralph Stanley.
McKenna is a freelance writer.