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Sunday, February 5, 2012


     dr ralph stanley and the clinch mountain boys

Last night Dr Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys played to a happy audience at Fairview. I picked up my friends Chris at his place and Justin at his. Justin wanted to drive his truck. It was better because the back seat in his truck is more comfortable than the back seat in my car. My car's back seat would be fine if the passenger didn't have legs. Plus, Justin knew a shorter way to Fairview than I did and he drives faster, so we had plenty of time. Neither of them had seen a Ralph Stanley concert, ever. It gives me a special time every time I introduce somebody to a Ralph Stanley concert. This was one of the better of the ones I've seen with him. He didn't play clawhammer banjo this time. His voice was a bit rrugged from a recent cold. He said, "I'm a little hoarse today. I was a little mule yesterday."

The musicianship, as always with the Clinch Mountain Boys, was as good as it gets. Dewey Brown's fiddle and James Allen Shelton's guitar make a good band by themselves. The banjo picker was new. Steve Sparkman left the band a little over a year ago. Like Ralph said of him when he introduced the banjo picker, he thought Steve Sparkman was the best, but this guy is just as good. He wasn't blowing smoke. This guy was an excellent banjo picker. I've looked around at websites and can't find his name. Nathan Stanley, Ralph's grandson, is coming along musically and in stage presence. I've been seeing him with his "papaw" since he was 14. Last night when Ralph was introducing Nathan, he said Nathan had been singing with him since he was 3 months old. I saw him in a video of a 50th year Ralph Stanley weekend bluegrass fest at his place in the early 90s. A little boy of maybe 2 years walked around on the stage sometimes. He was son of Ralph Stanley II, Nathan. Over the last 6 or so years I've seen him grow through his teens, at the beginning a notable mandolin player, now playing rhythm guitar, singing, talking, carrying the show, making it easy for his papaw. At the sales table before and after the show, Nathan sits beside Ralph, assists him, helps him the ways I used to help Jr, an assist now and again to help his loss of memory, and Ralph is in the early phases of frailty. 

It was a straight ahead concert, Ralph explaining his voice wasn't acting right, sang as forcefully as I've ever heard him sing and sang more than I remember before. He was bright and alert through the whole time. Toward the end, he mentioned he was getting sleepy, and I don't doubt he was. I saw much in him that was familiar from knowing Jr and taking care of him at that age. Ralph had that same faraway gaze, uncertainty, a sense of powerlessness, vulnerable totally, fear of losing the support that keeps him going, and from what I observed on stage and at the sales table, Nathan makes it possible for papaw to leave the house and do what he has to do. Nathan was remarkably attentive to papaw's every move and spoken word. I noticed he watched Ralph the way I watched Jr, to see a fall coming before it started and to be able stop it before it proceeded any further. Sometimes it would be no more than a firm grip on his elbow to steady him and stop the downward momentum at its beginning, when it's easisest to stop. It would take no more than holding him still a second or two to get his inner gyroscope lined up. I see Nathan will translate for Ralph when somebody says something he doesn't get. He puts it in language Ralph understands and he's got it. I know how Nathan feels when Ralph says, I couldn't make it without you. It makes one all the more attentive. 

My friends Todd Smith and his wife JoEllen came to the show. At intermission we got together and they said they were loving it. They are new to the county from Winston-Salem, have a house on the side of a mountain in the Stratford area. I know them through the coffee shop, and suggested they might like a Ralph Stanley concert, for one thing a peephole into the culture of the mountains, and for the good music. I only saw, besides them, about 4 people I knew; 2 of them slightly, and 2 of them not at all, except they go to the music show at Woodlawn on Friday nights. I like the feeling inside the auditorium with a Ralph Stanley audience. It's a feeling of reverence from everyone in the place. A couple hours in heaven where everybody gets along and is happy, in the corner where Ralph Stanley plays. 

The show was opened by Heather Berry and Tony Mabe from Walnut Cove. They sing Carter Family songs and other old-time and bluegrass favorites. They were the kind of fundamentalists that take it as their duty to ask people to come forward and get saved, you don't know what's going to happen on your way home tonight. They were good musically, good musicians, sang well, but were boring religiously. Ralph Stanley plays almost half gospel songs in his show, but he doesn't have to make an issue of it. He'll sing a spiritual song with power of feeling that will open your heart by itself, no need to make an altar call. I used the video camera, made video of quite a number of songs, wanting to make a dvd to watch at home. But something was wrong. I don't know what happened, but the video stops every few seconds and won't start for a long time. Oh well. Can't have it all. What a great show it was with Dewey Brown's exquisite fiddling, Shelton's guitar, Ralph Stanley's voice. Music the whole time. Clinch Mountain Boys do make music.  


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