Ralph Stanley: Live last night
By Dave McKenna
Ralph Stanley made the supermarket tabloid National Examiner this year for saying in a then-unpublished autobiography that Tim McGraw wouldn't know a country song if it kicked him in, well, his moneymaker. The hubbub caused Stanley to remove the insult from the memoir before it hit the shelves. But if Stanley's accusation stands, then Saturday at the Birchmere, the elder statesman of bluegrass played a lot of songs that McGraw wouldn't know.
(The last of the bluegrass stars? After the jump.)
Stanley, soon to be 83, looked great, in a gray sequined suit creased in all the right places, and sounded greater, delivering songs of sadness with a voice that now cracks at all the right moments. He led his unplugged pickers quintet, the Clinch Mountain Boys, through a two-set, 90-minute performance that oozed Americana.
Highlights included the expected songs for the lonely: "Room at the Top of the Stairs," about the old maid who has given up on love and the man who loves her, and a tale of a child's walk through a cemetery, "A Robin Built a Nest on Daddy's Grave." And so many death tunes, including "Pretty Polly" and an a cappella "O Death," which is now to a Stanley show as the national anthem is to a ballgame. It never gets old.
The reverence of the fans inside the packed club during "O Death" surely heartened Stanley. But the crowd's median age - there was hardly a non-gray hair in the house - should worry anybody concerned about the commercial half-life of bluegrass. Pervading the night was an overwhelming sense that this amazing music will be around only as long as Stanley is. O youngsters, where art thou? At the Tim McGraw show, more likely.
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