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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan

The Barbican, London
May 27th 2009

Ralph Stanley is within a cat’s whisker of being the same age as my dear old Mum, and let me tell you that she would find it pretty difficult to stay on her feet for an hour and a half, let alone sing and play the banjo, too. Dr Stanley is one of the United States’ most enduring country music performers, but you should understand that although his show is tinged with Nashville shtick, his music (“what we call old-time mountain-style bluegrass”) couldn’t be further removed from the mass-produced radio-centric pap that one normally associates with the genre.

Ralph Stanley
True, some of it is cast in Country’s unique maudlin style, such as “It’s springtime and the robin built a nest on daddy’s grave”, but at its best, the music and in particular, Dr Stanley’s singing, comes from another time and another place. Not that his voice tonight is on top form, as he frequently reminds us with very genuine apologies. This is not simply down to his age, given that no-one (surely not even Mick Jagger?) can expect to have the voice of a man in his prime at the age of 82. No, sir! Dr Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys are in London hot-foot from the 39th Annual Memorial Weekend Bluegrass Festival, held at the Hills of Home Park in Virginia (“now you make sure you call by and make a visit to us there next year”), where they performed for three consecutive nights (I note that even Fairport Convention haven’t yet got that indulgent at their Cropredy Festival). Not surprisingly, the strain is telling. And just to make things worse, the band have lost their regular bass player since son Ralph Stanley II wasn’t able to make the trip, while grandson and mandolin prodigy Nathan Stanley was left at home, having lost his passport.
Steve Sparkman
The exceptionally talented Kentuckian Steve Sparkman
But the Clinch Mountain Boys have been around for over fifty years and take such things in their stride. Originally formed by Ralph and older brother Carter (who died from chronic alcoholism in 1966), the band, along with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, were responsible for creating and popularising the bluegrass style of music. They were noted for vocal style and harmonies heavily influenced by their membership of the Primitive Baptist Universalist Church, a group found predominantly in the Appalachians and which incorporated a minor-key ‘mountain’ style of singing into its services. So it’s when Dr Stanley hits these striking notes that he has the audience in his hand. The current line-up boasts Virginian James A Shelton on vocals and guitar, North Carolinian Dewey Brown on fiddle and vocals, and the exceptionally talented Kentuckian Steve Sparkman on banjo. Dr Stanley, of course, is famed for his unique claw-hammer style of banjo picking, learnt from his mother. Sadly, his playing days are almost over and, to be honest, we might have been better off without the one effort he made. But the way in which the band carefully shepherded Dr Stanley through the show, all taking their turn at vocals and solos, was admirable.
Stanley’s reputation with a new and international audience, many unfamiliar with bluegrass, was established through of a telephone conversation with T Bone Burnett, who at the time was musical director for the Cohen Brothers on their Odyssean film ‘O Brother Where Art Thou? As a result, not only were many of the songs used on the bestselling soundtrack based on Stanley Brothers arrangements, but Dr Stanley himself delivered the memorable ‘Oh death’. Listen, and you’ll immediately appreciate that most unusual style of singing. Hence, the song is one of the highlights of the evening, along with ‘Man of constant sorrow’, a hit for the brothers back in 1950.

But it took a childhood memory from this elderly gentleman to capture my imagination entirely, when he and the band sang an ‘a cappella’ version of ‘Amazing Grace’, calling each line of the song just as he heard them called for the congregation as a boy in his ‘No -hellers’ church with his mother. Apparently, it’s called ‘lining out’, where a leader not only calls or chants the words, but also sets the tune and tempo, and which I learn is “an outgrowth of seventeenth-century psalmody of the British Isles and the American colonies and of early eighteenth-century hymnody”. Whatever its origins, it was a moment worth the price of the ticket. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)

Listen: Ralph Stanley on MySpace

Ralph Stanley

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