Miss Vicki and I were in the presence of a legend last night.
No, it wasn't the aging hippie birthday boy with the blown out greying locks above his too tight plaid shirt. It was the bass player Miss Vicki saw toting his instrument into the theater as we arrived downtown for a before the show dinner. It was also Dr. Ralph Stanley, 87 years young.
True, there was the occasional wandering around the stage when he was supposed to be singing at the microphone. A padded chair was center stage, and the whole audience exhaled in unison when, half way through the set, he managed to lower himself safely down onto the seat. He looked frail and fragile and uncertain, until he opened his mouth.
His voice has always been high and reedy. There's none of the roundness his son, Ralph Stanley the Second, carries. There's a mournful, verse-repeating, church-like quality to it. He told us that he learned to sing in his old Baptist church, a capella, praying to the Lord. I'm listening to my Pandora Radio Ralph Stanley station as I type and I can't tell which tunes were recorded in the 1980's and which last year. Pandora's biography calls it high lonesome and I think they've got it right.
When he began claw-picking the banjo, the way his mother taught him in 1930, the clock rolled back to his dark haired prime. His spine loosened, his hand was a blur, his head was lost somewhere in the moment. So were we all.
It was a blue-grass savvy audience. There was a lot of clapping along and shouted requests came from every corner of The Fox Theater. Each member of The Clinch Mountain Boys is an accomplished solo-artist in his own right, so it doesn't seem right to refer to them as the back-up band. The audience certainly did not regard them in that light; every artist had his moment, and the applause never wavered.
It was a long, wonderful set, the end to a long, wonderful evening. We saw history and musical excellence and indulged in a little bit of hero worship. It was perfect.