Photo By John Carrico
Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys
Cactus Cafe, April 27
Though it is with skeptic fear and fatalism that we watch our rock stars grow old, practitioners of the more tradition-bound types of American music -- jazz, folk, bluegrass -- enjoy a forgiving reverence from fans more in respectful accordance with their mileage traveled and accolades earned. But then, the appeal of rock lies in its celebration of youth and rebellion, as surely as bluegrass' lies in its wisdom and connection to the old times. In two shows at the perfectly intimate Cactus Cafe Friday night, Ralph Stanley, the septuagenarian bluegrass legend from the Clinch Mountains of western Virginia, received the full red carpet by two roomfuls of mountain-music faithful, who were paid in turn with thoroughly professional sets of authentic bluegrass music. Supporting his new collection of old material, Man of Constant Sorrow
, and riding the wave of recognition created by the success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou?
soundtrack (which Dr. Stanley acknowledged with winking gratitude as O Brother Where Y'at
?), Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys worked through gorgeous acoustic sets featuring a nice mix of standards ("Man of Constant Sorrow," "Angel Band," "Clinch Mountain Backstep") and new or re-recordings ("Daddy's Wildwood Flower," and the completely un-ironic "Daddy Took His Dinner Bucket Through the Gates of Heaven") from the catalogs of both the Doctor and son Ralph Stanley II ("Two"), who provided rhythm guitar and most of the lead vocals -- surprisingly more suggestive of Dwight Yoakam than Bill Monroe. Aside from Two, the Clinch Mountain Boys are a steady and familiar support system for Stanley's songs and vocals, with mandolin player John Rigsby and fiddle player James Price providing virtuosic accompaniment as well as integral high- and low-end vocal harmonies. The elder Stanley kept up on the banjo through the first set, and even took a solo and headed up another clawhammer breakdown in the second, but it was his 5-string apprentice Steve Sparkman who held down the hard-pickin' duties, showing that the torch was being passed to good hands. While the show-closing rounds of "Rank Stranger" and "Orange Blossom Special" brought the history of bluegrass right into the room, channeled through the frail frame of this living legend, the a cappella version of "O Death" offered by Ralph senior during both sets is what will be cemented in the memories of all who attended.