Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 4 Reviews

Ralph Stanley
Saturday, Oct. 2, 5:45 p.m.
Reviewed by Sarah Bardeen

The 75-year old Ralph Stanley took to the stage as the wind grew colder and the fog settled over the meadow. While the cold would tax both players and audience, people stuck around for what was, for many, their first chance to see this bluegrass legend. Stanley began the set introducing his band members, including his bassist of thirty-five years ("the man on the bass fiddle" as Stanley put it) Jack Cook. Cook's not just a bassist, though - his piercing singing provides an essential counterpoint to Stanley's voice, and he showed it off in the solo "Sitting on Top of the World." In thirty-five years, Stanley said, Cook's missed thirty shows - "and been drunk on about a hundred!" John Rigsby was on fiddle, James Shelton on guitar, Steve Sparkman on banjo and Stanley's 12-year-old grandson Nathan played mandolin with the self-possession of a man three times his age.

Stanley's first guest of the spontaneous, cameo-filled night was Berkeley singer Pam Tillis, who appeared on Clinch Mountain Sweethearts. "Now folks," said Stanley, "forgive me if I miss a few words or can't hit a key." He had nothing to worry about; the crowd was ready to scream for him no matter what happened. He sang "O Death" from O Brother Where Art Thou? with heartbreaking conviction, following it with a few tunes from his 2002 self-titled album, including "Girl from Greenbriar Shore" and "Lift Him Up, That's All."

After singer Maria Muldaur jumped on stage to sing "Memory of Your Smile," Stanley offered to show the audience the claw-hammer banjo technique. Though it ended up being too cold for him to demonstrate it, the mere fact of hearing Stanley play banjo sent energy coursing through the crowd. Nobody doubted him when he said, "Sorry folks, when my hands are warm I can tear it all to pieces." Stanley then invited requests, and the group happily sang "Rank Stranger," "Pretty Polly" and of course "A Man of Constant Sorrow," a song Stanley first recorded in 1948. Stanley introduced the 1954 song "Hard Times" by saying he wrote it "because we were having hard times. I guess we're having 'em again." They also sang an unbelievably beautiful a cappella "Amazing Grace," which they used to close the "Down From the Mountain" show every night. "John Henry" - "the old-time way" - was the encore, and a grateful crowd leapt to their feet, dancing to keep warm and shouting thanks to a master ent! ertainer.

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