Ralph Stanley:

Bluegrass to the End

By Glen Hensley

What do you get when you mix Ralph Stanley with bulldog gravy? You get Ralph Stanley. For more than fifty years, the Clinch Mountain patriarch has been weaving his particular brand of bluegrass for loyal audiences worldwide and only recently with the success of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack and an eye-popping Grammy win for Country Male Vocalist Of The Year has Stanley reaped the rewards of his many years of work. Dr. Ralph and his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, played their annual show at the humble confines of the Shepherdsville Country Music Place this past January the 10th.

I must admit it's difficult for me to write a review of the good doctor, as I have seen him many times since becoming a fan of bluegrass. Stanley simply does what he does best, parading his classic tales of lost love, the simple lives of plain folks, the redemption found only in God and, of course, death. Despite advancing time, Stanley's mournful mountain wail still resonates, especially in songs of heartache like "I'll Take The Blame" and "Man Of Constant Sorrow" and songs of life's final journey such as "Oh Death" and the seminal "Angel Band." Because of advancing time, the Doctor has had to scale back his duties and hand the reins to Ralph Stanley II and the rest of the Clinch Mountain Boys, who provide able backing throughout. The expanding democracy sometimes hurts the show's pacing, especially on some of the unnecessary instrumentals. In the end, the most amazing aspect of any Ralph Stanley show is his unflinching dedication to his craft, which, it appears, he will continue to practice until he can no longer perform.

The pride of Shepherdsville, Tommy Brown and County Line Grass, opened the proceedings with their brand of traditional Stanley-style bluegrass. Brown and Company's performance proved that style will continue to bear fruit for many years to come.