Black Music Matters Festival

Dr. Ralph provides a lifetime of memories

McCabe's, Santa Monica, Cal., Feb. 20, 1999

By Dan MacIntosh

SANTA MONICA, CA - Just one glance at the big blue bus parked out on the street with the Virginia license plate reading "Dr Ralph," and you know you're in the right place.

Stanley and his band The Clinch Mountain Boys were squeezed as tightly onto McCabes' small stage as the completely sold-out audience was crunched into this tiny club. But attendees gladly gave up an hour and a half of comfort just to be in the presence of bluegrass greatness.

A Stanley show is as much a showcase for the Clinch Mountain Boys as it is for their group leader, as each member took turns with a tune or two. This left Dr. Ralph to mainly provide banjo accompaniment and harmony vocals throughout the first three quarters of the set.

All the Boys handled themselves capably, but fiddle player James Price stood out the most as he turned in spot-on imitations of both Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. But he began to wear out his welcome later on in the show with a failed attempt at a comedy skit about a mountain character from his hometown. There's always humorous interaction among Stanley's band members, but why halt the music for unfunny amateur hour comedy?

Stanley's son Ralph Stanley II also shined as both the lead singer for the group, and in the renditions of a few songs from his recently released solo album "Listen To My Hammer Ring." These included the gospel song "Jesus Savior Pilot Me," the album's sad title cut, and most notably, a cover of Carter Stanley's dying ode to his wife "Mary Merry Christmas." Ralph II says the former 'other half' of The Stanley Brothers wrote this his last ever song three days before his death back in 1966.

Carter Stanley loomed throughout the set like a ever-present ghost, as he was referred to often this night, especially with a spoken word tribute by Ralph Sr. just before the end of the show.

Ralph Stanley Sr. apologized for a sore throat, and hoped it wouldn't spoil his singing. But when these cords were laid bare in the a cappella gospel song "White Robe," the voice sounded a little shaky and worn with age, but beautiful nonetheless.

And just to hear that timeless voice made this sardine-like arrangement worth our while. Sweat always dries, but these memories will last a lifetime.