I’ve seen my share of shows with musicians who would qualify as historic. I saw Bruce Springsteen on The Rising tour with nothing between me and the stage but a cameraman. I’ve seen U2 a few times. Bob Dylan. Pearl Jam, of course. Third Eye Blind. Wait, we were talking about historic. Scratch that last one. Double strikethrough.
Of Springsteen, I will say that the concert was an epic. His energy level was astounding and I almost passed out by the end (though that was probably more related to having been standing on concrete since sometime in the mid morning than to being overcome with an ecstatic fit).
U2, especially the first time, was nearly a religious experience. Which, I think that was most of Bono’s point.
Bob Dylan was actually a little disappointing as he grabbed the wrong key harmonica on nearly every song and even then and all the songs kind of sounded the same. Still, Bob Dylan: check.
Pearl Jam, well, they’re Pearl Jam. I almost passed out the first time I saw them, too. Near the end of Alive. That may have been more on the ecstatic end because my acoustic-noodly, DMB-loving mind was undergoing an instantaneous and electric metamorphosis.
All that said, I think the historic musician that I will remember most fondly is one I saw in a small club in Louisville, KY not too many years ago and, sadly, close to the end of his life. The great Dr. Ralph Stanley.
When you consider voices with an unmistakable, inimitable tone, Ralph Stanley has a dark, lonesome tenor that sounds like it issues forth from the heart of a mountain. I would put him in that unrivaled pantheon with the likes of Paul McCartney, Freddie Mercury, Billie Holiday, or Otis Redding. He may not have the acrobatics or the celestial aura of fame, but you know exactly who you’re listening to. He occupies a spot that nobody else can nor probably ever will.
And, he was just as much a pioneer as anyone from the British invasion or that unlikely soul corridor that stretched from Motown to Muscle Shoals. Coming out of the oft-forgotten and wholly otherworldliness of Appalachia, bluegrass music shares with jazz a very high distinction of being a true born-and-bred American musical movement. Ralph Stanley helped cut the trail that brought the sound down from the mountain where it had incubated since pre-Revolutionary times and into the public consciousness. Whether banjos and church harmonies are your cup of tea, there’s no arguing its a clarion call of American experience.
Then there’s the show itself. Dr. Stanley up on stage with his son and the rest of the band (the Clinch Mountain Boys). They played through a set and spent the rest of the night as a live jukebox. You could call out literally any song they’d ever done and they’d fire it up. Tunes were called that you can’t even find recordings of anymore outside of chance yardsale vinyl finds and they’d rip through it like it was their latest single. That’s no small feat for a solo artist, much less a seven-piece band. The sound, the joy, the complete mastery of the bluegrass canon, that voice. It was a special evening.
All this came to mind because I looked Dr. Stanley up last week and found, to my sadness, that he’d passed away over a year ago. I came to his music late in his life and still he’s brought me a great deal of joy. I’m glad I got to see him. I may never see The Rolling Stones and the chance to see the real Led Zepplin was gone before I was born along with so many other early rock and roll flameouts. But, here’s the thing. Rock and roll, love it though I do, has a hard time with aging. Vocal chords get shredded. Tinnitus sets in. Hedonism takes its pound of flesh. Ralph Stanley was cut from a different cloth that only seemed to improve with age. At this time in my life, that’s the picture I want to hold before me. A little quieter though no less rich and so built to last. Steeped in history and rooted in place. Peculiar, even, but for that all the more cherished and rare. That’s the American experience I hope to have and Ralph Stanley proves the possibility.