Archive for roanoke rapids theatre

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.

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Country music elder statesman look towards future

Posted in Newspaper Stories with tags , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2009 by Todd

 

Oak Ridge Boys

The Oak Ridge Boys

In a world of fly-by-night, flavor of the month chart-toppers and one hit wonders, rare indeed is the artist that can maintain a strong fan base for more than a few scant years; a group that somehow defies the odds and draws in listeners from generation after generation is even more uncommon.

And then, there’s the Oak Ridge Boys.

The group has roots stretching back to World War II, when their original incarnation, known as the Oak Ridge Quartet, performed their unique brand of gospel music for members of the historic Manhattan Project, the top secret government program that led to the creation of the world’s first atomic bomb.

In the early 60s, the group changed their name to the more contemporary sounding Oak Ridge Boys and recorded a series of groundbreaking albums for the Warner Brothers record label. By the early 70s the group had won a Grammy and recorded a single with Johnny Cash and the Carter Family that put them on the country charts for the first time.

With the current lineup of lead vocalist Duane Allen, tenor Joe Bonsall, William Lee Golden on baritone and bass vocalist Richard Sterban solidifying in 1973, the group made the risky but profitable switch from gospel to country music with the album “Y’all Come Back Saloon,” in 1977, the title track provided their first country hit.

“That was a big step for us,” said Sterban, during an interview with the Daily Herald. “But it worked out great.”
Since that initial step into the country mainstream, the group has racked up an impressive 21 number 1 country hits and 48 chart records.

Through the years the Oak Ridge Boys have managed to maintain their statues as contemporary hitmakers while keeping one foot in the gospel-based music of their past, as a look at their two newest projects makes clear.

Sterban, who joined the group in 1972, spoke excitedly about the groups recently completed album, “The Boys are Back.” Sterban said the album, which will be released May 19, marks a leap forward into uncharted territory and a throwback to a more traditional sound. “This new album is what we’re most excited about. The title song was written by Shooter Jennings especially for the Oak Ridge Boys. He’s a big fan and he actually had a lot to do with this project.”

After accepting an offer to sing background vocals on Jennings’ 2007 album “The Wolf,” the group was introduced to the young artists equally young producer, Dave Cobb. After a performance at a music showcase with Jennings brought down the house, the group became convinced that the time was right for a fresh approach.

“We decided to bring Dave Cobb in to produce our new album and it’s some of the most different stuff we’ve ever done. It’s definitely taken us down some different roads than we would normally travel on our own. But it’s still unmistakably the Oak Ridge Boys.”

Comparing the album to Johnny Cash’s series of American Recordings with Rick Rubin, Sterban said the new sound is more stripped down than the group’s previous offerings. “Instrumentally it’s very spare, with our voices right out front. It’s very new for us.”

Just how new is evidenced by the album’s first single, a cover of the White Stripes hit “Seven Nation Army” that finds the group replacing the songs grungy bass pattern and guitar riff with their familiar, harmonized voices. Sterban said other surprise cuts from the album include a version of the John Lee Hooker blues classic “Boom, Boom, Boom” and a take on Neil Young’s “Beautiful Bluebird.”

The group even managed to get Jennings’ mother, Jessi Colter, to lend a hand on keyboards during recording. “We recorded in the same studio where the original Outlaw stuff was recorded, Tompall Glaser and Waylon Jennings and all those guys. So it just made sense.”

A new DVD project, “The Oak Ridge Boys: A Gospel Journey” was released April 21, and showcases the groups roots, giving older fans a chance to watch the band perform their favorite gospel numbers.

That mix of the old with the new will be on display Friday night when the Oak Ridge Boys take the stage at the Roanoke Rapids Theatre. Said Sterban: “The fans can expect a lot of new music; we’ll  open with the title track off the new album. But they can expect a lot of hits, too. You can count on the fact that you’ll hear ‘Elvira,” you’ll hear “Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight;” you’ll hear “Trying to Love Two Women.”  It’ll be a great night of wholesome country music that the whole family can enjoy.”

Despite the changes in the music business since the group’s inception, Sterban said he remains optimistic.  “They’re some great new artists, like Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift. In general we have a good feeling about country music and where it’s headed. We’ll be working 160 days this year, which is pretty great considering the state of the economy. The Oak Ridge Boys are still looking forward to the future.”

Dr. Stanley has the ‘cure’

Posted in Concert, Review with tags , , , , , , on July 13, 2009 by Todd

Ralph Stanley

For an entertainer best known for a song detailing the harsh physical deterioration of approaching death, a cheerful Dr. Ralph Stanley seemed very much alive and kicking as he took the stage at The Roanoke Rapids Theatre Friday night.

Dressed in an immaculately tailored western-style suit and white cowboy hat, the 81-year-old bluegrass legend led his six-piece band through a set of hot-picking and high, lonesome harmonies as they performed songs from the Virginia native’s six decades at the forefront of traditional bluegrass artistry.

Before kicking off the show with a tuneful romp through the bluegrass chestnut “Sitting on Top of the World,” Stanley encouraged the crowd to show their appreciation for the band by telling one of the many jokes he peppered the audience with between musical numbers. “Giving the band applause is like making love to an old maid — you can’t go overboard,” he quipped in his slow mountain drawl, as the small but vocal crowd roared its approval.

Since forming the Clinch Mountain Boys with his brother Carter in 1946, Stanley has gained a reputation as a master showman who performs with some of the finest musicians ever to grace a stage.

Friday night proved that legacy was well deserved as the band, which included Stanley’s son, Ralph Stanley Jr. on rhythm guitar, and his grandson, Nathan, on mandolin, tore through classics such as “Little Maggie,” “Orange Blossom Special” and “A Robin Built a Nest for Daddies Grave” with a mix of practiced showmanship and seemingly effortless skill.

As entertaining as the band may have been, however, there was never any doubt as to the star of the evening’s show. From the moment he ambled into the spotlight, the smallest figure on the stage commanded attention by his mere presence and the weight of musical history resting on his frail shoulders.

Although the march of time has 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.”

One of the evening highlights, as at any Ralph Stanley show, was his a cappella reading of the chilling dirge “O Death,” which earned him a Grammy in 2002 when it was included on the soundtrack of the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

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, entering his eighth decade, would be with us to share his remarkable talents.

Yet not unlike the best blues performances, which somehow seem to bring a smile to your face while detailing life’s more depressing aspects, the crowd’s festive mood only seemed strengthened by the song’s honesty. Stanley clearly feed off their enthusiasm, calling out for requests as a wide grin played across his still boyish face.

After making a joke about his failing memory, he grabbed a sheet of handwritten lyrics and led the band through his self-penned number “I’ll Answer the Call” before turning them loose on several instrumental numbers showcasing each musicians considerable talents. After disappearing from the stage for several minutes, Stanley returned with a chair and proceeded to sit behind his band, listening and nodding in approval.

He wasn’t down for long, however, as he rose, took off his jacket, strapped on his banjo and showed why he has long been considered an innovator on the instrument, having pioneered a technique still referred to as “Stanley style.”

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 “Angle Band” and closing the night with a sped up, punk-raw version of the Appalachian murder ballad “Pretty Polly” that left several of the audiences younger members nodding in appreciation.

As the lyrics to “I’ll Answer the Call” state:

“I cannot sing like an angel,

I cannot preach like Paul,

But Lord when you get ready,

I’ll try to answer the call.”

Judging from the applause of the audience and the smiles on the faces making their way into the warm spring night outside the theater, Dr. Ralph Stanley continues to answer the call of bluegrass fans the world over each and every time he steps out onto a stage.

Having promised to make his way back to Eastern North Carolina on future tours, one can only hope he continues to answer that call for years to come.