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Ralph Stanley: 1927-2016

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

ralph_stanley

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.

Saying goodbye to an electric talent

Posted in Uncategorized on May 16, 2016 by Todd

Prince+Prince Rogers Nelson+Once Eye Covered+Sexual+Teasing+Flirtatious+Peek a boo+flirtation+mysteriousness+allure+romance+Body

Prince Rogers Nelson, his Royal Badness, the genre shattering Purple One from Minnesota, was the last true rock star worthy of that title. There is simply no other living musician who comes close to embodying his almost supernatural combination of instrumental and songwriting prowess, showmanship, forward looking fashion sense and unflagging work ethic. And that’s to say nothing of his very real, and very vital, eccentricity and mystique, that sense of otherness that seems to envelop many of the most talented among us.

I missed out on the heyday of much of my favorite music from the past. I wasn’t even born yet when the Rolling Stones released “Honky Tonk Women” in 1969 and I was barely out of kindergarten when punk finally broke through the morass of stadium rock in the mid-’70s. But I was damn sure there in 1983, sitting in front of the TV in my parent’s living room, when Prince and his band, The Revolution, appeared on the ridiculous pre-MTV pop music show Solid Gold to lip sync their way through one of his earliest and greatest hit singles, “1999”.

I was 12 years old, my parents were out of the house, and I remember stopping whatever it was I had been doing to stare at the TV when those first, orchestral synth riffs came leaping from the screen. Clearly, this was something new, and if the song itself didn’t make that clear enough, the musicians themselves certainly did. The female keyboard player, who sang the first verse, writhed suggestively in some sort of barely there latex outfit; her counterpart on the opposite side of the stage jammed away in a green doctor’s smock and sunglasses. And then there was Prince himself, decked out in that iconic purple trench coat and the funkiest jerri curl ever seen, already clearly a mega star, if only in his own mind at that point.

This band was male and female, black and white and…whatever Prince was; frankly it was hard to tell. For me, and I’m sure for many others watching that night, this was a Moment, one of those rare instances when something genuinely distinctive and modern crystallizes right in front of your eyes.

A little over a year after his Solid Gold appearance, Prince was, arguably, the most famous musician in the world, with both a number one album and movie, Purple Rain, and a growing reputation as one the most gifted players and performers in the world. At least for me, Michael Jackson simply could not compare.

I couldn’t have intellectualized it at the time, but this Prince character had somehow synthesized a lot of disparate elements of music and fashion that were part of a loose New Wave/ post-Disco scene at the time, everything from the electronic experiments of Kraftwerk and Devo, to Parliament Funkadelic’s synth infected funk and the minimalist punk stylings of The Ramones. At the same time he was also a throwback to Little Richard (the scream, the hair and makeup), James Brown (the dancing and funk jams), and Hendrix (that insane guitar facility), musicians who also prided themselves on being performers par excellence.

He was also, unlike many performers who find massive success, determined to test himself and his audience. This is, after all, the guy who stripped the bass part from maybe his greatest song, “When Doves Cry” at the last minute, despite protests from his music label. And when’s the last time you heard something as weird, stripped down and freaky as “Kiss” on the radio?

It speaks volumes about the man and his talent that musicians from every branch of the sound spectrum have offered their appreciation for Prince in the wake of his death on April 21 at age 58. A few hours after I heard the news of his passing, I read a comment to the effect that the world had lost its finest singer, guitarist, drummer and performer on the same day. That’s hyperbole to a certain extent, but not by much. If you don’t believe me, just watch any of his live performances that are available on YouTube, or the Saturday Night Live special that was given over to his appearances on the show over the years.

On the stage, the man simply burned. Just consider that much of the Purple Rain album, including the majestic title track, was recorded live. I’d go so far as to say that Prince may very well have been the most gifted guitarist since Jimi Hendrix and probably the single greatest showman American popular music has ever seen. He really was that incredible.

And he was sharing that gift until, almost literally, the very end. Which makes it that much sadder that he should end his days alone in an elevator, having apparently overdosed on pain medication prescribed for injuries sustained over years of performing

A larger than life rock star who was also a diminutive, extremely shy man. A fabulously wealthy celebrity who chose to remain in his home city most of  his life. An utterly enigmatic diva and, apparently, one hell of a basketball player. Male, female. Rock, pop and funk.

Prince contained multitudes. We’ll never see his like again.

One of the finest Dylan covers ever recorded

Posted in Uncategorized on July 2, 2011 by Todd

 

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 30, 2010 by Todd

A fine  slice of 70’s-influenced, gothic funk that will hopefully be included on the Trucker’s next album, “Go Go Boots.”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on March 19, 2010 by Todd

In memory of the late Alex Chilton.

Rowland S. Howard 1959-2009

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on January 12, 2010 by Todd

In memory of the late, great The Birthday Party and These Immortal Souls guitarist. who passed away on Dec.30 after a long struggle with liver cancer. A musical innovator and gifted songwriter, Howard roared out of Australia with fellow madman Nick Cave in the early 80’s, leading the charge in the post punk revolution with a style that combined mind bending noise with lyrical melancholy and a fine ear for twisted jazz and country and western, influences that deepened and matured as he moved into his solo career in the mid 80’s. On hearing of his passing, Cave remarked “This is very sad news. Rowland was Australia’s most unique, gifted and uncompromising guitarist. He was also a good friend. He will be missed by many.”