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From the Country Standard Time Archives

Stanley performs among empathetic friends

McCabe's, Santa Monica, Cal., Feb. 11, 2001

By Dan MacIntosh

SANTA MONICA, CA - In the intimate living room like atmosphere of this guitar shop turned concert hall, a few hundred diehards gathered to hear a participant in last week's second best selling country album, the "O Brother Where Art Thou?" soundtrack. With such sales, a more likely locale might have been one of this town's luxury-boxed hockey rinks. But since Ralph Stanley doesn't play the twang-free variety of country music so popular among LA's urban cowboys, McCabe's cozy quarters would have to do.

But nobody here even missed such amenities as laser lights and bigger-than-life stage props, since the six-member Clinch Mountain Boys kept all entranced with their especially effective musicianship.

A Stanley concert follows a familiar template: each Mountain Boy gets his turn to play and sing, before the man of honor, Stanley, closes out the show.

Before the legend took center stage, he first deferred to his fellow travelers. Lead guitarist James Alan Shelton led off the proceedings by swiftly picking "Cannon Ball Blues." Bass fiddle man Jack Cooke performed a spruced-up "Sitting On Top of the World." Steve Sparkman then proved why one of the planet's greatest banjo players keeps him close at his right side. Ralph Stanley II revealed how talent is so many times passed down from father to son, before fiddler James Price revved up the jam with "The Cackling Hen."

Mr. Stanley's key moments both came from the "O Brother..." soundtrack. First was his singing of the movie's default theme song, "Man of Constant Sorrow." But it was his a cappella singing of "O Death" that fell like a cone of silence over the audience. Singing the lyrics from a cheat sheet, this performance was simply stunning. Just to hear a man of Stanley's advanced age sing so openly about The Grim Reaper's beckoning call is as serious as a heart attack.

The evening ended with a group performance of "Rank Stranger," but one left with the overwhelming impression that Ralph Stanley was clearly among empathetic friends here.