Ralph Stanley at the Pabst Theater
The bluegrass legend leaves the circle unbroken
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The first glimpse the audience got of Ralph Stanley Thursday night at the Pabst Theater wasn’t onstage but in the lobby, where the 82-year-old bluegrass luminary sat behind the merch table and signed autographs for a long line of admirers. It’s probably been this way for all the 63 years Stanley has been in the music business—records sold one by one, fans made with each handshake, a career built one show at a time.
Stanley has played songs like “Pretty Polly,” “The White Dove,” and “Man Of Constant Sorrow” in hundreds of cities, towns, and villages since the Truman administration, so he can be forgiven for not knowing exactly where he was after finally taking the stage. (He was preceded by a warmly received set by local folkie Lil Rev.) Stanley couldn’t quite recall if he had ever been to Milwaukee, though he did remember playing numerous rural towns in the northern part of the state in the past. Being a living monument to 20th century American roots music doesn’t make you immune to the effects of aging, and Stanley—with good humor and winking southern humility—worked around his failing memory and diminished skills on the banjo to thoroughly charm the audience.
Stanley doesn’t play much anymore, and he frequently stepped aside during the set to let his current incarnation of The Clinch Mountain Boys take the lead. But he still has the same wild, heart-rending tenor that once merged perfectly with his brother Carter’s lead vocals in The Stanley Brothers back in the late ’40s and ’50s. Stanley’s startlingly talented 16-year-old grandson Nathan Stanley, who backs granddad on mandolin, sounds a bit like Carter, singing with a honeyed richness that belies his age. It was even inspiring to hear Nathan and Ralph sing together on The Stanley Brothers standard, “The White Dove.” This is music that seems so durable and timeless, and yet, as the Ralph Stanleys of the world slowly disappear, the chance that these songs could vanish forever becomes more likely. With people like Nathan Stanley carrying on the torch, there’s hope that the circle will remain unbroken.
Of course, pappy Stanley is still around, and he still has the power to conjure up all the lost spirits and truths of America’s musical past. His one true moment in the spotlight, when the band stepped offstage to let Stanley stand solidly on his own, was during the traditional North Carolina folk song “O’ Death,” which Stanley performed on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Singing a cappella, Stanley was a stunner, taking the audience to a place of mystery and fear, of spiritual yearning and religious desperation, and all the other things that comprise the mythical, backwoods America that lives on in these old songs. Then he forgot the words in the second verse. But at that point, it didn’t really matter. Mere words were no match for the feeling. Stanley was there, and so were we, and the myth felt real again.