For an entertainer best known for a song detailing the harsh physical deterioration of approaching death, a cheerful Dr. Ralph Stanley seemed very much alive and kicking as he took the stage at The Roanoke Rapids Theatre Friday night.
Dressed in an immaculately tailored western-style suit and white cowboy hat, the 81-year-old bluegrass legend led his six-piece band through a set of hot-picking and high, lonesome harmonies as they performed songs from the Virginia native’s six decades at the forefront of traditional bluegrass artistry.
Before kicking off the show with a tuneful romp through the bluegrass chestnut “Sitting on Top of the World,” Stanley encouraged the crowd to show their appreciation for the band by telling one of the many jokes he peppered the audience with between musical numbers. “Giving the band applause is like making love to an old maid — you can’t go overboard,” he quipped in his slow mountain drawl, as the small but vocal crowd roared its approval.
Since forming the Clinch Mountain Boys with his brother Carter in 1946, Stanley has gained a reputation as a master showman who performs with some of the finest musicians ever to grace a stage.
Friday night proved that legacy was well deserved as the band, which included Stanley’s son, Ralph Stanley Jr. on rhythm guitar, and his grandson, Nathan, on mandolin, tore through classics such as “Little Maggie,” “Orange Blossom Special” and “A Robin Built a Nest for Daddies Grave” with a mix of practiced showmanship and seemingly effortless skill.
As entertaining as the band may have been, however, there was never any doubt as to the star of the evening’s show. From the moment he ambled into the spotlight, the smallest figure on the stage commanded attention by his mere presence and the weight of musical history resting on his frail shoulders.
Although the march of time has slowed his movements and robbed him of the ability to play his beloved banjo for extended periods, all eyes were on the Grand Ole Opry and Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor member as he stood at center stage and led the band on bluegrass touchstones such as “I Saw the Light,” “Man of Constant Sorrow,” and a particularly moving version of “Angel Band.”
One of the evening highlights, as at any Ralph Stanley show, was his a cappella reading of the chilling dirge “O Death,” which earned him a Grammy in 2002 when it was included on the soundtrack of the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
With starkly unsentimental lyrics such as “I’ll fix your feet till you can’t walk, I’ll lock your jaw till you can’t talk, … Oh Death, won’t you spare me over for another day?” the song both pointed up Stanley’s courage at facing up to life’s inevitable finale and made one ponder just how much longer the good doctor, entering his eighth decade, would be with us to share his remarkable talents.
Yet not unlike the best blues performances, which somehow seem to bring a smile to your face while detailing life’s more depressing aspects, the crowd’s festive mood only seemed strengthened by the song’s honesty. Stanley clearly feed off their enthusiasm, calling out for requests as a wide grin played across his still boyish face.
After making a joke about his failing memory, he grabbed a sheet of handwritten lyrics and led the band through his self-penned number “I’ll Answer the Call” before turning them loose on several instrumental numbers showcasing each musicians considerable talents. After disappearing from the stage for several minutes, Stanley returned with a chair and proceeded to sit behind his band, listening and nodding in approval.
He wasn’t down for long, however, as he rose, took off his jacket, strapped on his banjo and showed why he has long been considered an innovator on the instrument, having pioneered a technique still referred to as “Stanley style.”
Saving the best for last, the veteran performer kicked his voice into high gear, cutting through every instrument and harmony singer with his piercing mountain rasp on “Little Maggie” and “Angle Band” and closing the night with a sped up, punk-raw version of the Appalachian murder ballad “Pretty Polly” that left several of the audiences younger members nodding in appreciation.
As the lyrics to “I’ll Answer the Call” state:
“I cannot sing like an angel,
I cannot preach like Paul,
But Lord when you get ready,
I’ll try to answer the call.”
Judging from the applause of the audience and the smiles on the faces making their way into the warm spring night outside the theater, Dr. Ralph Stanley continues to answer the call of bluegrass fans the world over each and every time he steps out onto a stage.
Having promised to make his way back to Eastern North Carolina on future tours, one can only hope he continues to answer that call for years to come.