Archive for July, 2016

Ralph Stanley: 1927-2016

Posted in Bent Notes Column, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 18, 2016 by Todd

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High and lonesome doesn’t even begin to cover it. When bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley left this world on June 23 after an extended battle with cancer, the man took with him a spirit and a sound that, though it may echo in a thousand lesser hands and voices, has no hope of being replaced.

Like the recently departed Merle Haggard, Prince, and David Bowie, Stanley’s small physical being contained a talent and drive that seemed beyond the merely human. Like some mythological Greek deity, entire universes of music routinely sprang from his head and fell to earth, impossibly strange gifts for us mere mortals.

Born in 1927 in Stratton, Virginia, Stanley and his guitar slinging brother, Carter, began blending the folk traditions of their home region and Carter Family-style harmonies into their duo the Stanley Brothers and their backing band the Clinch Mountain Boys, in the mid-’40s. Their 1951 recording of the traditional song “Man of Constant Sorrow” was both faster and harder-edged than the music of acknowledged “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe. Stanley’s wickedly-accelerated banjo style and high, rough-hewn voice helped take the musical genre of the mountains to new audiences.

To my ears, too much of today’s bluegrass music focuses on the dazzling technical expertise of its instrumentalists at the expense of songcraft. For all his fleet fingered skill on the banjo, “Dr” Ralph Stanley (as he was known to fans) never showboated, never tried to overwhelm audiences with 20 minute, blazing solos. His was a music of loose limbed rhythm, deep blue melody and voices intertwined like strands of mountain laurel.

All of those talents were still very much in evidence almost six decades later when I had the good fortune to catch Stanley in concert in 2008 at the Roanoke Rapids Theatre.  Backed by a fine band that included his son, Ralph Stanley Jr. on rhythm guitar, and his grandson, Nathan, on mandolin, the 81-year-old tore through a lean set of originals and folk and gospel standards with the elan of a man half his age.

Dressed in an immaculately tailored western-style suit and white cowboy hat, Stanley also proved he still retained an impressively rude sense of humor. While encouraging the audience to show their appreciation for the band, he quipped, “Giving the band applause is like making love to an old maid — you can’t go overboard.”

Although the march of time had slowed his movements and robbed him of the ability to play his beloved banjo for extended periods, all eyes were on the Grand Ole Opry and Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor member as he stood at center stage and led the band on bluegrass touchstones such as “I Saw the Light,”Man of Constant Sorrow,” and a particularly moving version of “Angel Band.”

The audience that night was larger than one would have expected for an octogenarian performing songs older than most of their grandparents. But by that time Stanley wasn’t just another bluegrass performer — he was the guy who sang “O Death,” which earned him a Grammy in 2002 when it was included on the soundtrack of the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

As he had in the movie, he sang the song a cappella that night in Roanoke Rapids. With starkly unsentimental lyrics such as “I’ll fix your feet till you can’t walk, I’ll lock your jaw till you can’t talk, … Oh Death, won’t you spare me over for another day?” the song both pointed up Stanley’s courage at facing up to life’s inevitable finale and made one ponder just how much longer the good doctor would be with us to share his remarkable talents.

The diminutive legend seemed to catch a second wind during the last few songs of the show. Here’s what I wrote in my review of the concert the following day:

“Saving the best for last, the veteran performer kicked his voice into high gear, cutting through every instrument and harmony singer with his piercing mountain rasp on “Little Maggie” and closing the night with a sped up, punk rock-raw version of the Appalachian murder ballad “Pretty Polly” that left the audience’s younger members nodding in appreciation.”

I expect anyone who takes the time to discover Ralph Stanley will have the same reaction. Hopefully, today’s listeners can put aside any lingering prejudices about his song’s hillbilly, backwoods origins and simply hear them for what they are — soul music in excelsis.

A cockeyed take on fatherly advice

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , , on July 5, 2016 by Todd

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Sturgill Simpson’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” may be the best country album  ever to include an R&B horn section, strings, sheets of psychedelic guitar and a cover version of one of alternative rock’s most beloved hits.

The fact that Simpson’s latest release is also the only country album to include all those elements does nothing to diminish the remarkable beauty and soul to be found therein.

For anyone who’s kept up with Simpson’s career thus far, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” should come as no surprise at all, following as it does on the heels of his Grammy-nominated 2014 release, “Metamodern Sounds In Country Music.” But where that previous album featured songs that pondered the significance of “reptile aliens made of light” and transcendental realms of consciousness, Simpson’s latest was inspired by a far more traditional subject — fatherhood. The entire album, in fact, was constructed as a way to pass on the hard knowledge Simpson has gained over the course of his 37 years of sometimes hand-to-mouth living.

Listeners searching for a set of clichéd bromides to pacify their youngsters would do well to stay far away from Simpson’s version of fatherly advice.

“Go and live a little, Bone turns brittle, And skin withers before your eyes,” he urges on the scalding “Brace for Impact (Live a Little).”

Simpson, a Navy veteran, also addresses the age-old ritual of the young being  sent off to war, and a society that equates violence and callousness with manhood.

In “Sea Stories” he describes a new service member as “Just another enlisted egg, in the bowl for Uncle Sam’s beater.” Simpson imagines the young man’s battle with drug addiction, which results in his dishonorable discharge.

“You’ll spend the next year trying to score

From a futon life raft on the floor

And the next fifteen trying to figure out

What the hell you did that for”

And then he drops the unexpected denouement:

“But flying high beats dying for lies

In a politician’s war”

The song that immediately follows, a midnight soul cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” takes that work’s critique of unthinking consumer culture and cross pollinates it with the Bee Gees classic “To Love Someone.” It’s a startling move that could have been deeply embarrassing in lesser hands. Simpson’s reading, however, sounds as natural, as inevitable, as a child’s first words.

Of course, all the inspired lyrics and hip song choices would mean little without an equally potent sound to brace up the whole affair. In that  pursuit, Simpson is aided in no small part by both his ace touring band and The Dap-Kings, the swaggering R&B horn section perhaps best known for their work on Amy Winehouse’s breakthrough album “Back to Black.” The combination concoct a dense, rhythmic brew that is at once brighter and more seethingly alive than anything he’s tried before.

With the recent passing of country contrarians Merle Haggard and Guy Clark, Simpson is one of the few musicians left standing who seem willing to not only meet the music’s storied traditions head on, but also cast them aside completely when it suits his restless vision. In the process, he’s proven himself to be one of the few country artists whose albums are anticipated with the same sense of ‘What will he come up with next?’ wonder as progressive rock and rap acts such as Radiohead and Kendrick Lamar.

Whatever direction Simpson chooses to go in the years ahead, he’s already left most of his peers far behind. With a voice like pine tar and dust and a mind like a tornado, it’s bound to be a fascinating journey.