Ralph Stanley's heavenly mountain music
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., September 1, 2003) – With little fuss, Ralph Stanley took the stage at the Mahaiwe Theatre on Sunday night promising as he probably has every night for the better part of the last 60 years some “old-time mountain-style – what they call bluegrass – music,” and then for the next 90 minutes or so, with the help of the Clinch Mountain Boys, delivered on that promise in his singular style and fashion.

It was a variety of show of sorts, with plenty of lightning-fast bluegrass picking, high-lonesome harmonizing, and corny joking. But it was Stanley’s heartbreaking soul singing that stole the show, his otherworldy, go-for-broke chanting -- the Appalachian version of a Moslem muezzin or a Jewish cantor -- that made the evening not just a great bluegrass concert but a transcendent experience.

For the most part, Stanley played it close to the vest, offering little hint that a wry personality might underlie his steely demeanor. But after introducing the six members of his group over the course of the evening, he lightened the proceedings by introducing himself as if he were someone else, immodestly listing the ever-growing litany of honors and awards he has won and calling on the audience to “give me a big hand,” before launching into his trademark number, “Man of Constant Sorrow.”

Stanley sang that song with palpable physicality, as if he were not just singing but throwing his voice into the air. It was a form of spiritual singing, undoubtedly owing partly to the blues and partly to the church, but coming from someplace even deeper, another dimension, perhaps, of which only certain singers are aware.

He tapped into the same vein for an a cappella version of “O Death,” one of the numbers he recorded for the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” While on the surface it was a form of gospel singing, with melismas stretching syllables into many notes, there was something more timeless and ancient about what Stanley was channeling in the number. He did it again on “Angel Band,” another song about a life beyond this world, which he originally recorded with brother Carter back in the 1950s.

In traditional bluegrass style, Stanley let the light shine on each of the members of his band in turn. You don’t get to become a member of the Clinch Mountain Boys unless you’re very good. Banjoist Steve Sparkman was a particular standout, playing the instrument which Stanley used to play with fleet dexterity, although Stanley did take one turn and demonstrated his trademark, percussive style of playing. Guitarist James Shelton was also a virtuoso, as was mandolinist John Rigsby. Stanley’s son, Ralph Stanley II, played rhythm guitar and sang several numbers in a voice more suited to contemporary country than bluegrass.

Opener Jim Lauderdale sat in with the group on several tunes, and he and Stanley exchanged witty repartee and terrific harmonies. They premiered a novelty number, “She’s Lookin’ at Me,” that also included Ralph Stanley II, and which could be a hit. Lauderdale reportedly played on late into the night after the concert with a group of local pickers and singers at Club Helsinki, which presented the show as part of its Mahaiwe summer series of American roots music.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 3, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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