Monday, June 19, 2006

O Dr. Ralph

I had the pleasure on my birthday last Wednesday of seeing the 79-year-old Dr. Ralph Stanley perform in downtown Manhattan. Dr. Ralph is considered to be the father of mountain-style bluegrass music. His decorated career spans over 60 years, beginning with his brother Ira in the Stanley Brothers to becoming a member of the Grand Ole Opry to numerous awards to over 200 albums to his acceptance in the Bluegrass Hall of Fame.

Due to a threat of rain, the concert was unfortunately moved indoors to the swanky auditorium of Stuyvesant High School, where we were crammed into seats and forced to shush ourselves throughout the performance. Bluegrass seems to me to be made for outdoor venues where that "high lonesome sound" can float through the air to listeners. I had high hopes for hearing Dr. Ralph's glorious old-time voice while sitting on the Hudson riverbank on a hot summer night eating meats and cheeses, but it was not to be. The bonus of being indoors was that I was able to meet the man himself, and get a signed CD offa him for a steep $20. And if anyone deserves my $20, it's Dr. Ralph...

Tres Chicas, including Caitlan Cary formerly of Whiskeytown, opened the show and bored us to tears with their samey-sounding sounds. Pleasant enough voices sung by girls in bad dresses but a total snoozefest. Dr. Ralph took the stage around 8:15 and led his Clinch Mountain Boys through a set that was heavy on the sales pitch and light on the music. Dr. Ralph has that Grand Ole Opry/classic country persona that seamlessly melds the music with the product so that you don't realize you are in the middle of a commercial until he's almost done with the cornball patter. At least the only products heavily pushed here were CDs from all 6 Clinch Mountain Boys members.

Since I last saw Dr. Ralph 5 years ago, he's noticeably aged (and underwent triple bypass surgery last year). For most of the set, he stood back or sat down, just behind the band in his red-and-black western shirt, and let the other members take turns singing leads (including 45-year-old son and heir apparent, Ralph II, and his 13-year-old grandson, Nathan on mandolin). He said allergies had, disappointingly, made him hoarse for much of the tour. You can tell Dr. Ralph is slowing down some, and touring the 200 days a year or whatever he used to do is rougher on him than it used to be.

That said: catch the man while you can. He's a national treasure and one of the true originals.

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