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Story and photos by Gypsy DaveyOn February 25th Dr. Ralph Stanley turned 82. He has been performing now for 62 of those years, starting in 1946 with the birth of The Clinch Mountain Boys, formed by he and his brother Carter Stanley. Together they were the first band to adopt the musical style of Bill Monroe, which later became known to the world as "bluegrass."
Ralph's performance Thursday night at the Pabst Theater was a strong indicator that plans to slow things down aren't even on the table, nor are they being discussed. He has every intention of doing a birthday bash celebrating his 100th. After a few warm up numbers meant to get the bluegrass blood pumping, the band cleared the stage leaving only Ralph standing under single spot, dressed in an impeccable rust-colored single-breasted suit, face fully shadowed under a pristine white cowboy hat. Ralph led us along with his a cappella rendition of "O Death" popularized in the Coen brothers film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" However, three quarters way into the song, Ralph slipped up by not remembering the next line, the man is 82, you understand. But without missing a beat in the melody, he sang it with, "...o the next line I forgot...oh, help me my God!" Ralph used this moment to tell his tale of his most recent visit to the doctor for reasons pertinent to this very matter - his forgetfulness - and when the doc asked how long he's been this way, Ralph's reply being..."what way?" The auditorium burst with laughter and the show continued.
Ralph preserves what his brother Carter mastered before him - the ability to endear himself to an audience through jokes and stories as a way to introduce songs and keep the show moving along in an entertaining fashion. His "climate" bit with banjo player Steve Sparkman was another precious example of just that talent. It's a long bit connecting two separate anecdotes, one of the odd newlywed couple - a 4' 2" man and his 6' 10" wife, and the other surrounding Steve's future in farming. After three of Ralph's examinations into the accounting for Steve's accomplishments (fist-sized peanuts, watermelon's that need a flat-car to move, and 35lb sweet potatoes) all explained with the one-word reply "climate." Steve bounced back with an inquiry of his own at the wonderment of how the short groom is able to kiss his bride. Ralph's reply - climb it.
Ralph leaves the playing these days pretty much to his band mates, but he did remove his jacket for a little "claw-hammer" picking of the banjo himself - "Stanley Style" (a three-finger technique distinguished by incredibly fast forward rolls led by the index finger, a style handed down to him from his mother). He played it so fast he needed assistance from his band in slowing him down. Back on, goes the coat when completed.
Highlights of the evening were the Appalachian folk fiddle tune called "Clinch Mountain Backstep", "Will You Miss Me", "Katy Daley", Nathan Stanley's own (Ralph's grandson) "Sandy Ridge", which Ralph introduced by inquiring why it was named so, to which Nathan replied..."because that's where we live", the instrumental rendition of "John Henry" (led by Jack Cooke on solo guitar), "Little Maggie" and "Angel Band" - where Ralph was handed a folded letter-sized piece of paper to read lyrics from, and explained it away with..."You know, it's only two versus with four lines each, and I can't even seem to remember that." Closing the night out was the double encore, starting with "Man of Constant Sorrow," which brought a standing ovation, and "Pretty Polly," which kept them there. Both proceeded Ralph's parting words, "Good night; so long; God bless you, and God bless America." Regardless of how much Ralph will remember of the evening, he certainly gave Milwaukee a show they'll never forget.
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