I wish I could remember the name of the girl who took me to see Ralph Stanley the first time. Sue Something, I’m thinking. I definitely owe her as it was a pivotal music experience for me back in 1971 or so. Definitely at the University of Wisconsin Student Union, in an upstairs ballroom.
Sue turned me on to bluegrass, as well as Cajun music–which five years later became my entry into music journalism and the music business. But that first time I saw Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain boys, little did I now then that Ralph Stanley and Keith Whitley were the youngsters in his band. I would get to know Ricky very well throughout my career, and I knew Keith good, too, and his wife Lorrie Morgan, before he drank himself to death in 1989.
I think they did my favorite Ralph Stanley song, “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem, that long ago night in Madison. I’ve never forgotten hearing it around 3 a.m. driving back from Milwaukee on some clear-channel country station, then switching over and hearing a live version of The Carpenters “We’ve Only Just Begun,” recorded, I think, in concert in Japan. Somehow both recordings had the same power.
This time, at City Winery in New York last night, I returned Sue’s favor indirectly, taking Emily Kenison, my friend Beefy’s daughter. Beefy’s better known as Troy Charmell, multi-instrumentalist for legendary Madison-based ‘70s band Dr. Bop & The Headliners, and current half of Those Weasels, a fun duo also starring Dr. Bop’s frontman Al Craven, The White Raven. Like me some 44 years ago, Emily, just out of law school, had no idea who Ralph was, or what bluegrass is.
She does now.
Ralph’s set started with the current version of his Clinch Mountain Boys band, including his son Ralph 2 on lead guitar and grandson Nathan Stanley on rhythm—also the main vocalist, who did most of the talking. He sang a wonderful, heartfelt tribute to his grandfather, “Papaw I Love You,” from his recently re-released album The Legacy Continues; in it he refers to his “father figure” Ralph, on whose boots he fell asleep on stage as a two-year-old, as “my hero” and “best friend.”
When Ralph came out after a substantial opening segment from the band, he looked every bit his 88 years, dour and stone-faced in the manner of Jackie Mason (84), not at all robust like Tony Bennett (89). He seemed to have shrunk a foot or two since the first and last times I saw him, too frail now to play banjo, let alone hold one. Yet when he steadied himself at the mic and began singing his classic “Man of Constant Sorrow,” his voice was surprisingly strong, same with “O Death,” delivered so famously in O Brother, Where Art Thou?—the dirge here a tour de force full of unintended but undeniable meaning in his a cappella plea, “Won’t you spare me over ‘til another year?”
When the band ended with “Orange Blossom Special,” Ralph appeared disoriented, but clearly didn’t want to leave the stage. If nothing else, it was muscle memory if not sheer force of will, and they closed with the bluegrass staple “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.”
Nathan promised that Ralph and the band would be out to sign merchandise, and I waited 10 minutes or so for Ralph. I hadn’t spoken to him since 2009, when we talked about his support of Obama in his dressing room at B.B. King’s. I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in a long time while waiting, which was nice, but didn’t want to risk a second time, and besides, Ralph looked tired and there was no guarantee he’d even remember.
But I did round the corner thinking of trying the bus, and ran into a young fan hoping for a Ralph autograph, who said Ralph wasn’t feeling well so they took him on the bus to rest. No point in knocking, but I did take a photo of the bus, which was Ralph 2’s, but carried a huge ad for a local law firm representing, among other things, black lung cases.
I didn’t tell the kid, but I did hope that Ralph 1 would be spared over for another year, at the very least.