By Tommy Edwards,
SDAM Staff Writer
©Copyright 2021 SDAM.com/Tommy Edwards
[Editor's note - Staff writer Tommy Edwards titled this article Tones of Home, since he's from Tennessee]
I recently had the pleasure and opportunity to cover Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys show at Encenitas' Historic La Paloma Theater. I arrived early, in between the 6pm and 9pm shows. Dr. Ralph and his band were set up selling merchandise and autographs in the hallway between the front doors and the concessions stand. I bought a CD and had it signed by the elder statesman of bluegrass. Dr. Stanley hales from the mountains of Virginia not far from where I was raised. I made small talk with a few members of the band and spoke for a while with Ralph, who happened to know some of the same folks in bluegrass back East as I. It was very nice to have access to such a seasoned performer. I felt privileged to see this wonderful pioneer and icon in such an intimate setting.
I found my way into the theater to my seat, and got settled. The room was only about a quarter full. I took a seat dead center about halfway back, and started taking notes. La Paloma Theater is beautiful inside. The architecture is amazing, a mix of Spanish with Mediterranean overtones. The tile work and moldings are absolutely beautiful. People slowly shuffled in and found their seats. The crowd was a mixture of ages and ethnicities. The room filled up about halfway before the lights went down and the band came out.
Wayne Rice of WKSON announced the band. The show started with the Clinch Mountain Boys:
James Shelton Takes center stage to sing and the band breaks in to "The Sunny Side." Dewey Brown is a fantastic fiddler and his solo is wonderful and full of life. In between each song, one of the band members would introduce the others. They play "Choo-choo coming," and Ralph II sings.
Nathan introduces his grandfather, and there is a noticeable cheer from the crowd. The applause is well deserved. In 1976 Ralph Stanley was awarded an honorary Doctorate of the Arts. In 1984 he received the National Heritage Award. He was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 1992. In 2000 he was named as a "Living Legend" by the US Library of Congress, as well as being named a member of the Grand Ol' Opry. In 2002 Dr. Stanley won a Grammy for his song "Oh Death" from the movie "Oh Brother Were Art Thou." He won "Best Male County Song," beating out Johnny Cash, Lyle Lovett, and Tim McGraw. He also won " Best Bluegrass Song." He has been playing professionally for 60 years this October. In 2004 he was named "Virginian of the Year." Quite a career.
The band plays "Room at the Top of the Stairs," a great rendition. Dr. Ralph steps to the front of the stage and talks about the song "Oh Death", and makes jokes about his health and the band. He makes funny comments throughout the show. Ralph sings an a cappella version of the song, and it is chilling. The hair stood up on the back of my neck, a true experience. Small in stature and frail form a recent quadruple by-pass surgery, Stanley sang with the conviction of a man confronted by his own mortality, and it felt more relevant than ever. At the conclusion of the song he boasts the Grammy nomination and win was one of the highlights of his life. "Oh Death" produced by T-Bone Bennett was the first bluegrass song to ever win "Best Country Song".
Dr. Stanley introduces his grandson Nathan and jokes that the young man is the elder statesman of the band, and about the 14 year old looking for a wife while in California. Ralph jokes that Nathan went to school in Virginia through the 3rd Grade, and then moved to Hollywood to teach high school. He informs the crowd that he is 79 years old, and hopes to be tuning 80 later this year.
The band played an upbeat version of " Sunnyside of the Mountain", while Steve Sparks holds a Flat Footen' exhibition. He's a pretty good flat footer, my grandfather taught me how to flat foot when I was a child. At this point Ralph hands the reins over to his son, and retires to a chair at the back of the stage in the center. The band plays "Good Old Mountain Dew", and Ralph II speaks of moonshine. Ralph II sings a song that is dedicated to his uncle Carter Stanley; the song was nominated for a Grammy in 2005. In it he sings of the shadow in which he lives, the big shoes he must fill, and trying to find his own name and identity. The song is called "The Stanley Blues".
Ralph II called Nathan to sing a tune that he wrote called "Little Benny". Nathan is a nice guy, and he is really down home. He invited me to the 35th annual Ralph Stanley Festival in Coburn VA in May. When he was done Dr. Ralph came back up to play a song on the banjo in the old claw hammer style. It was a great version of "Mule Skinner Blues" by Bill Monroe the Father of Bluegrass. Then the band played "Rank Stranger", and a Dewey Brown fiddle tune. Ralph said "Goodnight and God Bless America". The crowd applauded, and the band returned for an encore of "Rollin' in My Sweet Babies Arms" and "Orange Blossom Special." It was a great show, and I would advise you to see this man while you still can because he's really getting older and we all go sometime. I passed up many chances to see him in Virginia, and I regret that, but I am so happy to have been a witness of this great performance. I would also recommend attending shows at La Paloma Theater, it is a terrific venue.
For more info on Ralph Stanley, visit his Web site.