Photo by Vince McGilvra
Dr. Ralph Stanley and His Clinch Mountain Boys
Sun., Feb. 10, Skipperâs Smokehouse, Tampa
Certain legends radiate such a powerful aura on stage that their diminished skills â the inevitable result of advanced age â 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 Skipperâs 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. Stanleyâs weathered vocals often added an intense poignancy unmatched by the historic recordings he made with his late brother Carter in the â50s. Uptempo songs executed with striking proficiency by Stanleyâs 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 â two acoustic guitarists, a fiddler, banjoist, mandolin player and standup bassist â 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 Stanleyâs 2002 Grammy award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance, plus numerous honors like performing at the White House and for the Queen of England â 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 âPretty Polly,â a song Ralph first recorded with the Stanley Brothers, the group he led with his sibling up until Carterâs death in 1966. Stanley introduced the next number by saying âIâd like to do an a cappella song I had the privilege of doing for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.â 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 âO Death.â A haunting meditation on mortality, itâs the song that won him the Grammy and introduced Stanley to young people previously unfamiliar with bluegrass and the genreâs elder statesmen.