Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley shines at Skipper’s

When he left the stage less than 30 minutes into the show, Stanley had already done his most famous song, played the banjo for the sole time of the evening, let a band member sing lead vocals on a tune and pitched the merch. If any other act had pulled such a stunt, it would’ve been met with severe criticism. But for Stanley, we waited patiently until he returned to the stage a half hour later.

During the second set, the singer told a Hee Haw-style joke, asked the audience for requests and performed gorgeous versions of the Stanley Brothers classics “Angel Band” and “Rank Stranger,” a pair of songs recorded over the years by such artists as Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan. A gripping reading of the hymn “God and Me,” on which Stanley dueted with Josh Turner for a hit in 2006, was another highlight.

The band offered a fiery instrumental performance of “Orange Blossom Special” and then Stanley bid the crowd farewell. Everyone departed the stage only to return moments later to do “Man of Constant Sorrow.” First recorded by the Stanley Brothers, it became a mainstream hit when a new version appeared on the O Brother album. Slightly winded after singing strongly on the fast-paced song, Stanley said: “God bless you and God bless America.”

The show ended at 9:05. Concertgoers filed out, looking grateful to have seen a titan of American music.

Concert review

Photo by Vince McGilvra

Dr. Ralph Stanley and His Clinch Mountain Boys

Sun., Feb. 10, Skipper’s Smokehouse, Tampa

Certain legends radiate such a powerful aura on stage that their diminished skills — the inevitable result of advanced age — become irrelevant. Bluegrass great Dr. Ralph Stanley turns 81 in a couple weeks. His once clear, sweet voice has frayed, and he no longer picks the banjo with authority. But when Stanley performed Sunday at Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa, he proved captivating, the crowd of about 600 clinging to almost his every word.

Photo by Tracy May

The singer remains an effective live act, in large part due to his repertoire of songs that address timeless issues like love, faith and the looming afterlife. Stanley’s weathered vocals often added an intense poignancy unmatched by the historic recordings he made with his late brother Carter in the ’50s. Uptempo songs executed with striking proficiency by Stanley’s six-man Clinch Mountain Boys judiciously followed the most solemn numbers of the night. Younger attendees danced wherever space permitted.

Photo by Tracy May

Stanley and his dapperly dressed backing musicians — two acoustic guitarists, a fiddler, banjoist, mandolin player and standup bassist — took the stage at 6:30 sharp. The featured performer donned a white cowboy hat and a sharp, gray suit peppered with sparingly placed rhinestones.

A band member delivered a long introduction that mentioned Stanley’s 2002 Grammy award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance, plus numerous honors like performing at the White House and for the Queen of England — just in case anyone present might have forgotten that they were witnessing a legend.

The band kicked off the evening with a lively rendition of “Pretty Polly,” a song Ralph first recorded with the Stanley Brothers, the group he led with his sibling up until Carter’s death in 1966. Stanley introduced the next number by saying “I’d like to do an a cappella song I had the privilege of doing for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.” The other musicians exited the stage and the packed venue turned silent. Stanley clasped the microphone stand with his right hand and lent his gloriously ragged voice to “O Death.” A haunting meditation on mortality, it’s the song that won him the Grammy and introduced Stanley to young people previously unfamiliar with bluegrass and the genre’s elder statesmen.

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.