Dr. Ralph Stanley has been playing bluegrass for over 66 years, and he continued to do that on Wednesday night when he came through Austin with his Clinch Mountain Boys. Local bluegrass imbibers Whiskey Shivers opened the show. Review by Neil Ferguson. Photography by Arthur VanRooy.
I may not be a religious man, but on Wednesday night I was baptized in the bluegrass of the devout Dr. Ralph Stanley, as he and his Clinch Mountain Boys graced Austin. Taking the stage shortly after 8, the good doctor politely notified the audience that he had a mean case of laryngitis, and proceeded to sing a haunting acapella version of “O Death.” Despite his raspy vocals, the 85-year-old bluegrass legend sang well, and approval was evident by the thunderous applause of the crowd.
From that point on Stanley held a stoic position in the center of the stage, relinquishing the pickin’ duties to the current lineup of the Clinch Mountain Boys, understandable considering his age and health.
Almost as astonishing as the doctor’s age is his grandson, Nathan Stanley. Dressed to the nine’s in shimmering rhinestones, this 19 year old whippersnapper has no problem leading the charge as bandleader and playing a mean guitar. On the couple of songs where Ralph Stanley played the banjo, young Nathan calmly assisted his grandpa in nailing down the notes.
Images of sitting in a pew came to mind as the band cheerfully told the audience how much they love playing gospel music before launching in to the mountain hymn, “White Dove.” Spirits stayed lifted with the fiddle-driven bluegrass classic “Orange Blossom Special,” a fast number that had the crowd doing jigs to the music.
With black suit and greased back hair, grandson Nathan took on a Johnny Cash-like aura as he sang the eerily beautiful “Long Black Veil,” an almost Southern gothic tune that, when sung right, sends chills up your spine and brings tears to your eyes.
Age and health aside, Ralph Stanley was in good spirits, playing a classy host and taking requests from the audience. The band warmly accepted the requests, pickin’ through traditional bluegrass tunes like “In The Pines” and “Mountain Dew.” After a little over an hour Ralph Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys closed out the evening with the popular “Man of Constant Sorrow” (well known from the soundtrack of O’ Brother Where Art Thou).
Maybe he was channeling the lord himself, because the good Dr. Ralph Stanley appeared to get a sudden burst of energy as he picked up his banjo and humorously hinted at tossing it to the crowd like a true rock star. Regardless of religious choice, it was hard to leave Emo’s without feeling blessed to have seen one of the great figures in American music history. -Neil Ferguson