Dr. Ralph Stanley: a bluegrass experience

Last night, Daniel and I went to see bluegrass legend, Dr. Ralph Stanley, and his Clinch Mountain Boys in an intimate venue in downtown Staunton, Virginia.

I didn’t know much about the history of bluegrass until I watched the documentary, High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music, with Daniel the other day. Bluegrass is an amalgamation of folk music traditions, drawing most heavily on Irish traditional music brought over by Scots-Irish immigrants who settled in the Appalachian mountains in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Later on, these poor white southerners were influenced by the syncopated rhythms of African music and bluegrass began to develop into its own genre. Bill Monroe is considered the founder of bluegrass, but the Stanley Brothers took up the sound and feel of bluegrass shortly afterward.

Ralph Stanley has been composing and performing bluegrass music for 66 years. He’s now 85 years old. He has inspired decades of musicians and musical traditions.

We sat in a small dining room with no more than 100 people. Stanley was visibly under-the-weather, sitting on a chair surrounded by his band. After about two songs, he explained that he’d recently been hospitalized and wasn’t supposed to be performing. He didn’t want to let down his fans, he said, so he checked out early and came anyway. His body wasn’t strong enough to sing or play, so he transferred the lead to his grandson, Nathan Stanley.

Ralph Stanley made sure to sing one song all the way through: his Grammy award-winning rendition of “O, Death,” from the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack. Hearing the words, “Oh death, won’t you spare me over til another year,” coming from an ill, 85 year old about did me in. He’s supposed to make a full recovery, but the pleading now seems real. I was only able to capture a small portion of the solo, but I think it’s worth a listen.

 

Bluegrass has a peculiar, holy quality. It is moaning and dancing. There is much talk about death and misfortune and industrialization. But there’s a grounded joy underneath it all. An understanding that suffering is not the end – that if we just sing loud enough and play with feeling and believe in God we can elevate ourselves to something better.

The music I listened to last night made me feel like I do on the high swings at the fair in November, my eyes closed, aware of my body, aware of myself, but also aware of more. Literally and figuratively elevated, apart from the trudging task of daily life, understanding in my gut that I am fundamentally a part of a living, torrential natural world.

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