The 86-year-old band leader and banjo player from Virginia began making music professionally in 1946, the year in which it is commonly held that the bluegrass style fully gelled and the genre was established both as a cultural and a commercially viable musical movement. Stanley is no doubt among the very greatest of American musicians; his clawhammer banjo picking and recordings have contributed greatly to an American Songbook rooted deeply in the themes of religion, poverty, fierce independence, family, tragedy and perseverance.
At the Sheldon this Saturday for KDHX's Folk and Roots Festival, on its sparse stage and wooden wainscoted walls, the "Dr." -- so deemed by an honorary degree of music bestowed on him from a university in Tennessee -- stood with frailty and dignity under the lights. Surrounded by the accompanying Clinch Mountain Boys, a cast that has constantly revolved, surely evolved, at times devolved or dissolved briefly over some six decades, it was clear who was running the show -- and it wasn't the legend Ralph Stanley, but his 21-year old grandson Nathan.
If Ralph Stanley represents the holy spirit of bluegrass, than Nathan Stanley is the bright-eyed adherent of the new church. A consummate stageman with a brash Branson-esque presence, he was the band leader this evening, shining like Wayne Newton in full rhinestones, hair slicked back like young Elvis, guitar high on the chest -- if a Clinch Mountain Boys film were cast, a young Jack Black should play the role of the precocious Nathan Stanley.
Don't get me wrong. It was still Ralph Stanley's night. With each rarified vocal performance interspersed in the night's two sets, there wasn't a thing he could have done wrong in the eyes of his fans. Sans banjo, in a shiny suit with his wife of 47 years no more than five feet from him at all times, Dr. Stanley clearly took the stage as an icon, standing at times on queue at other times without much purpose, but most often sitting, a king-like figure maybe, less lion than lamb in his late years (a lion-hearted lamb perhaps). For some, this night would be a reminder that the legends of the past are still mortals in the present, as vulnerable to time's cruel slights as we all are.
With his signature minor falls, Stanley's a cappella "O Death" was the most profound performance of the night. His voice, like a plaintive moan over knobby pines in the back woods, displayed a raw talent now trapped in an aging cage and let free for a few moments, and proved again that the legend will live long posthumously after the man is gone from us.
Won't you spare me over til another year
Well what is this that I can't see
With ice cold hands takin' hold of me
Well I am death, none can excel
I'll open the door to heaven or hell
Whoa, death someone would pray
Could you wait to call me another day
I would be remiss if I did not mention the other members of the band, fine exemplars each and every one of the bluegrass craft. As Nathan introduced and sang their praise -- "a fine song," "a good man" -- they each came forward to "pick or sing" a classic. Dewey Brown gave his rendition of "Orange Blossom Special," a song Bill Monroe made famous featuring the train whistle by fiddle string. Road Manager and guitarist James Shelton took up with "John Henry," a song revived most recently by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, while Nathan played a song co-written by himself and bassist Jimmy Cameron, "Papaw, I love you," a saccharine paean to his grandfather, deliverd in Grand Ole Opry style.
With the evening waning, Nathan took the stage again for a final duet with Dr. Ralph (and audience participation) of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" This song, a Carter Family classic that's been recorded by score of country and bluegrass (and beyond) artists, shows how that first family of hillbilly music looms large in the music of the Clinch Mountain Boys. The whole evening had an unabashed reverence for gospel, and that tradition, symbolized in the iconic figure of Ralph Stanley, will surely influence anyone who comes after him, anyone who seeks out the roots of American folk and the heart of bluegrass.