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Ralph Stanley is not immortal. In spite of refrains — at least half a dozen at the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Arts Festival alone — of his status as a “living legend,” Stanley is 86 years old and frail. One half of the first-generation-of-bluegrass duo The Stanley Brothers, as well as a solo artist in his own right, Stanley might have just a few years left in him. He already can’t play his famous clawhammer-style banjo. On Saturday, his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, gave Stanley a lyrics sheet so he could remember the words to “Angel Band”, a song which someone in the crowd requested. A song he must have sung hundreds of times.

Earlier in the show, Stanley called Nathan, his grandson, and the technical lead singer of the Clinch Mountain Boys, “Ralph Stanley Jr.” Nathan quickly corrected him, saying “I’m your Grandson” and made it clear to the crowd that the rest of the band also knew that this was Pittsburgh (woooo!) and not “somewhere in Ohio?” as Ralph mumbled or inquired as if he didn’t much care. (I know I didn’t).

The Clinch Mountain Boys do carry Stanley. They play lots of songs that highlight their impressive playing and singing, especially Nathan’s a-little-too-smooth style. (Nobody was smooth like Ralph’s late brother Carter, who was silk and butter, but not shiny, uncomfortable vinyl. Carter drank himself to death in 1966).

Christened in his childhood church days — Primitive Baptist, so services only allowed vocals, no musical instruments — as “ the boy with the hundred-year-old voice,” Stanley may not reach the century mark that would officially grant him having grown into that voice. Yet his age and stature surely make more sense when you hear him sing now. And he can sing.

When Stanley sang “Rank Stranger,” I got that elusive, hair-raising feeling that goes beyond just being happy to be there listening. It came when Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua sang “River of Jordan” in the Little Grill in Harrisonburg, VA last year. I felt a ghost of it when my friends Jason and Stephen played and harmonized on “Little Birdie” last summer. But the Stanley Brothers’ arrangement on “Rank Stranger” is something else.  In their version — and the Clinch Mountain Boys echoed this on Saturday — Carter starts clear and strong, “I wandered again/ to my home in the mountains….” Ralph is faintly harmonizing here, but first it’s all Carter on display. His voice is classic country, but not unpleasantly so. He’s sad, earnest, warm — and then Ralph takes the second verse with “everybody I met seems to be a rank stranger” and his eerie, ancient voice brings the song to an entirely different place. The contrast in the brothers’ vocals — familiar and unearthy together — hits your spine, your knees, everywhere.

There’s a reason, you see, that this Oxford American poem from the point of view of God says “I have… a voice like Ralph Stanley.”

That voice is not as strong as it was at his peak, but it’s still there, that high droning power. While Stanley sang “Rank Stranger” I just clutched at the hem of my dress and felt so happy I could melt. In those moments, I want nothing, and it’s wonderful.

He sang “Little Maggie,” and “Mountain Dew,” and “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and other Stanley standbys, too. He didn’t need the lyrics sheet again.

And then he sang “O Death.”

The acapella version from the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack won Stanley a Grammy in 2002 and cemented his place in the history of country music. He earned that decades before, but the delighted reaction to the song — a dirge straight from the hills of Appalachia with unknown origin — is entirely justified. But it’s still strange that it’s so popular. The lyrics, addressed to death, are frightening to anyone who has suffered a moment of existential angst. I don’t like to listen to it very often. I don’t want to sap it of its power. Also it’s really scary.

At the Art’s Festival, when Stanley began “Death/O Death/Won’t you spare me over for another year,” my only concrete thought was a prayer; let people — for once — shut up. There were some “woooo” and “owww” sounds at the start, but I was in the front and in my earshot people shushed the loud folks. For most of the song, most of the people were silent.

In fact, I have never heard that powerful a silence at a concert. The palpable quality of the hush reminded me of the graveyard near my grandmother’s cabin in Montana. The graveyard has a dozen or so folks buried, many of whom had  only wooden headstones. Those names are now rubbed away. All ten or 12 individuals — including a baby lastname, and a man with a great ghost story/cautionary tale about not taking a dead man’s remains — were all buried in the late 19th century. They died of diphtheria, and they were tucked away in the mountains to prevent the disease from spreading.

It’s a strange place, almost pine forest again. The old fence is almost rotted back into the earth. Nature is winning over man, and that provokes big, scary thoughts on being human when you visit. But it’s also a beautiful spot to spend forever, even if your forever means only your bones in the ground. That graveyard also contains the biggest, loudest quiet I have ever heard. The air of the place seems charged (“the very air come and go with me”). I grant that this feeling may come from my own head. I still feel it in my body each time I go there.

That’s what I thought of when Ralph Stanley sang “O Death.”

Ralph, whose hand I shook after the show (I gushed a thank you, and a “you made my whole year!” He might have smiled a little, he certainly thanked me) got a lot of response from that uptight, Pittsburgh crowd. He stood for the whole hour and a half show, even though a chair rested on stage if he had needed it. His face was solemn, which he apparently always was even as a young, shy man. (He used to let Carter talk to the fans.) He mostly clasped his hands like a boy in church, as he waited for his turn to sing.

He tried to demonstrate the old clawhammer power on “Shout Little Lulu.” That was the very first song he learned — his mother taught it to him. On Saturday he had it, then he lost it, and the band, all full of love, covered for him as best they could. And we in the crowd cheered for him. When we kept clapping and encoring, he thanked us all and blew earnest kisses.

Ralph Stanley is not immortal. Ralph Stanley is fading away, as we all will if we’re very lucky.

Ralph Stanley is not a living legend because he is old. You don’t clap for Ralph Stanley because you are kind. He is not a feeble relative to watch over and encourage like a child. You applaud because you are selfishly grateful that Ralph Stanley is here to carry all this music with him. He’s carries it for us, and he has enough of it to give. He calls his grandson his son, and his fingers aren’t nimble enough for the banjo, but on stage he can still go back to his boyhood, Primitive Baptist Church days and stand, hands neatly folded, and do what he was born to do.

Concrete Blonde! Another band that feels like imaginary LA: That is the one that mixes the 60s, the late 70s, the 80s, and the early 90s. That is also Dad tending bar and taking over the LA Times letters. Mom hanging out with Peter Scolari and getting hit on by John Hurt while waiting tables. They meet. They go see Stop Making Sense, they have a few kids. Exene Cervenka lives down the street at some point. Everyone reads Joan Didion and watches cool-MTV until we have to move because of crackhead neighbors and because I get asthma and pneumonia  Soundtrack by the Talking Heads, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, The Cars, X, and the Blasters. Plus, Kingdom Come, I suppose. If only because I don’t remember living in LA, but I do remember the first I saw Uncle Dan without his hair metal hair.

Anyway, this is an anti-cop song, for an added bonus.

The greatest song about a dusty Bible that there is, which is impressive since the other one is by Hank Williams Sr. Fun fact: my friend Bob is still apologizing for going to see the Fox Hunt one night in Pittsburgh. I was taking a nap, he did not wake me up.

Latent Chatham University impulses coming up for me here, but I would love if Tegan and Sara always were this rockin’ and catchy.

One of my favorites by the Stanley Brothers. It makes me want to love the Lord in a way that only Ralph Stanley can.

Took me long enough. Sheesh.

 

 

A vitally important music snob question: which version of “Wagon Wheel” is worse?

A) Generic country-rocker Jeremy McComb’s:

B) Darius “Hootie” Rucker’s:

Trick question, I don’t care because they’re both too boring for me to stay awake. Neither is dynamically bad enough to bleed the ears, they just made a great song significantly less good. Which is a strange thing to do —  to make a song ache less.

Now Laura Jane Grace (formerly known as Tom Gabel) of Against Me! managed to actually cover this now-fratty-douchebag-request song and make it even more gut-wrenching and lonely-sounding. This cover bridged one favorite band to another for me. It is excellent.

But, even though secretly we real music snobs go to Old Crow Medicine Show shows and roll our eyes at “Wagon Wheel” and the hysteria the prospect of it invokes in one-trick fans, please observe how good the original song sounds. And in spite of the wonky lip syncing, how rockin’ this video is, sexy dancing girls, carnival, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings cameo and all:

Still, the winner of all “Wagon Wheel” is this obscure BBC version, with the band cozied up around one mic. The very end cuts off and that drives me nuts, but damn if this version doesn’t make me weep for the lack of Willie Watson in the Old Crow of today.

Check it, and know that no matter how many acoustic guitar dudes cover this song, it will still be great. And more to the point, no matter how I hate the people who go to see Old Crow and drunkenly shout for “Wagon Wheel!”, when the band does play it, the sloshing idiots who only know that one song become a bit more bearable for those four minutes — because we all love that one damn song. And, uh, maybe that’s what liking sports is like all the time, or something. We’re all in it together, is what I mean. Even if they should act like that for “James River Blues” or “Raise a Ruckus” or other, arguably superior songs as well.

No, the real point is that the covers of this song are perhaps like a Taylor Swift song, or something that I kind of like, that’s a little catchy, more fun than average radio noise. Something to which I might listen a few times and like. Maybe if I just heard songs I liked that much, I would think that’s what music sounds like. It would be nice. It would be fun for parties.

But then there’s songs like this, and voices like Willie Watson’s, and that is just another fucking universe from the well-crafted, fun enough stuff — and that’s my music.

That’s the good stuff. That’s the hair-raising stuff.

  1. Robert W. and I, somewhere in the woods of New Mexico, Against Me!, spring, 2006.
  2. Honorable mention: Robert and I, same trip, the hills of SF, listening to the New Pornographers and Joe Jackson albums, which he had just purchased from Amoeba records.
  3. And again, Robert and I on the very first day of the road trip, listening to “Teenage Riot” by Sonic Youth — a beautiful spring day and the prospect of three weeks before I had to see my home again.
  4. The clouds and I up in an airplane, Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros (the “Global a-Go-Go” album), a general feeling that I wasn’t scared to die because there were clouds, Joe Strummer, and I. Date unrecalled.
  5. Tara, Steve, Jason, and I, Parker and Woolbright’s “The Man Who Wrote Home Sweet Home Never was  Married Man”, somewhere in Tennessee or North Carolina, December, 2010.
  6. The Carter Family and Old Crow Medicine Show on the headphones, a Greyhound bus in the middle of Montana, August, 2008.
  7. A Grateful Dead song that involved the name “Barbara”, Steve, Jason, Mia, Dina, and I, a speedy descent down the Great Smokies, January, 2013. 
  • “The Beatles are not merely awful, I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are godawful. They are so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art, that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music.” — William F. Buckley Jr, 1964.*
  • On jazz: “An idiotic little hammer knocks dryly  one, two, three, ten, twenty knocks. Then, like a clod of mud thrown into crystal-clear water, there is wild screaming, hissing, rattling, wailing, moaning, cackling. Bestial cries are heard: neighing horses, the squeal of a brass pig, crying jackasses, amorous quacks of a monstrous toad…this excruciating medley of brutal sounds is subordinated to a barely perceptible rhythm. Listening to this screaming music for a minute or two, one conjures up an orchestra of madmen, sexual maniacs, led by a man-stallion beating time with an enormous phallus.”– Maxim Gorky, 1928@
  • “If you would have your son soft, womanish, unclean, smooth-mouth, affected to bawdry, scurrility, filthy rimes, and unseemly talking; briefly if you would have him, as it were, transnatured into a woman or worse, and inclined to all kinds of whoredom abomination, set him to dancing school and to learn music, and than you shall not fail at your purpose. And if you would have your daughter riggish, bawdry and unclean, and a filthy speaker and suchlike, bring her up in music and dancing and my life for yours, you have won the goal.”– Phillip Stubbes, 1583#
  • Supposedly from a list of Nazi prohibitions on jazz (the music itself was not entirely banned, but rather it had to be proper sort of jazz): “5) strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit (so-called cowbells, flexatone, brushes, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl (so-called wa-wa, hat, etc.);”–Rest over here at The Atlantic.
  • “If you don’t thrill to Mr. Kinkade’s magnificent landscapes of bridges, cottages, streams, and profusely blooming gardens, all glowing in light from sun, moon, or lamp, you are probably a member of the sniveling ‘art establishment.’ Mr. Kinkade eschewed the nihilism, obscenity, and utter nonsense of modern “art” in favor of truth and beauty.”– Becky Akers, Lew Rockwell blog.

And this particularly sad one:

  • “I had not come to be their guest that night; for, it being New Year’s Day, several of the neighbors were met together to divert themselves by dancing country dances. By the advice of my companions I went in amongst them whilst a woman was dancing a jig. At my first entrance I endeavored to shew the folly of such entertainments, and to convince her how well pleased the devil was at every step she took. For some time she endeavored to outbrave me; neither the fiddle nor she desisted; but at last she gave over, and the musician laid aside his instrument…Christ triumphed over Satan. All were soon put to silence…”– George Whitefield, 1740#

Bonus points for several hilariously paleo quotes about culture that my friend Ricardo has written on my facebook.

Anyone else have any favorites?

(H/T *The Deceleration of Independents, #:A Renegade History of the United States, @QI)

“Where Eagles Dare” by the Misfits; urge to: pump fist and poorly hardcore dance while screaming: “I ain’t no God damn son of a bitch!”.

-”Copperhead Road” by Steve Earle; need to: put fist in air in manner of fratty guy or hipster, both of whom sincerely adore “Don’t Stop Believing” but you hate that song. Flail extra from “they draft the white trash first round here anyway” line until end, scream “now the DEA’s got a chopper in the air!”

“Carry Me Back to Virginia” by Old Crow Medicine Show; must: do some sort of flat-footing while moshing and thinking about poor Confederate soldiers.

“Drunken Lullabies”  by Flogging Molly; used to while restless at age 15-17: actually run into walls of house, closet doors, due to lack of available mosh pit.

“Harlem River Blues” by Justin Townes Earle; you: wave your arms, clap, walk around and generally feel the gospel spirit, which is weird since the song is about committing suicide.

“Oh, Susquehanna” by Defiance Ohio; just: mosh with killingly folk punk earnestness, especially when the girl starts singing.

“Teenagers” by My Chemical Romance; unashamedly: bounce like the mallpunk you never were, even if you technically saw them open for Green Day in 2005, but didn’t pay a lot of attention.

“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by Whitney Houston; dance; for two thirds of the song, get kind of bored, think about how sweet Whitney’s eye makeup is in the video.

“You Ain’t Woman Enough To Take My Man” by Loretta Lynn; country-slink a bit: think about numerous unavailable men who are attractive, apologize in your mind to Loretta.

“Calamity Song” by the Decemberists; sit up straight; write a few bracing words in a Microsoft Word doc because of that excellent beginning, nod because you are just so pumped for your montage of productivity, even if this song seems to be about the end of the world.

“Suffragette City” by David Bowie; dance, using more hips and shoulders than usual: repeat the words you know which are “hey, man” and “suffragette city!” and don’t forget “wham, bam, thank you ma’am.”

“Riot Squad” by Cock Sparrer; he’s in the riot squad: ooooooooooooooohhhhhhhhhhh.

-etc.

-etc.