Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys
Saturday, Feb. 2
A couple legends rolled through town last Saturday night: bluegrass banjo-picker Ralph Stanley played the Music Mill with his Clinch Mountain Boys and electric blues guitarist B.B. King performed at the Murat. I’ll say a few words about Stanley here, and you can check out the B.B. King review by Matt Socey (with photos by Joey Foley) elsewhere in the section.
A relaxed and magnanimous showman, Stanley gave each of his band members a solo by way of introduction, starting with the guitarist, ending up with the bassist and hitting up mandolin, fiddle, banjo and another guitar in between. Heading into his 81st year, Stanley relies upon his band to fill out the show: He picked up the banjo for only one tune, and took lead vocals on only about a quarter of the songs.
The first two songs on which Stanley took lead were remarkable: Randall Hynton’s “Room at the Top of the Stairs,” about a shut-in who won’t accept the love of another man, is one of the few bluegrass tunes (that I’ve heard) about agoraphobia, and one which Stanley did well to pair with an a cappella rendition of the traditional “O Death,” made famous through the “O Brother” soundtrack. Stanley opened up the second half of the show with another tragic ballad, his brother Carter’s “White Dove,” with its almost maudlin (though not quite) chorus: “I’ll live my life in sorrow / Since mother and daddy are dead.”
All this death and lost love would have been quite a bummer, but the band sprinkled the rest of the show with upbeat instrumentals, gospel numbers and “Hee-Haw” worthy jokes. Ralph Stanley’s mandolin-playing grandson, Nathan, made it clear from the beginning that he only sings Christian songs, which tend to balance all that death and wrongdoing with the promise of eternal salvation.
It was a sold-out house at the Music Mill, which goes to show that there are plenty of bluegrass and roots music fans in Central Indiana. They knew Stanley’s songbook pretty well, with the last half-hour of the show given over to requests. And there were quite a few yelled promises to attend Stanley’s 100th birthday party, which the old banjo player plans to celebrate by performing.