For each of the first few years that I lived in Bloomington, I told myself that I should go to neighboring Brown County for the Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival and see Bill Monroe perform while he was still alive. But I didn’t.  I was there once, saw some great music, but as I recall, he was too ill to make it, and a few months later he died.

Well, when I read that Ralph Stanley was scheduled to play at downtown Bloomington’s Buskirk Chumley Theater, I felt pretty strongly that I should make sure I went.  Not that this would make up for it, but if it’s that easy to see a living legend of an art form you feel a connection to… come on.

I was a bit concerned that the show might really just be a ruse… get some random musicians to play and just set Ralph in front of them and watch the money pour in, just cashing in on a legendary name.  There may have even been a small number of people at the show who felt like that was what happened.  But, if so, I’d say to them that they’re missing the difference between a legendary name and an actual legend.

The band’s classic RV/Tour Bus was ostentatiously parked right in front of the theater on Kirkwood Avenue.  Some 20-something bluegrass musicians were playing on the sidewalk, a self-styled opening act, I guess.  It worked for me, got me in the mood for started me musing about this purely American music.

I cannot agree with the program notes’ claim that Ralph “..performs with the vigor and elan of a rock star” (I also cannot agree with the use of the word ‘elan’ in such a context… I can’t imagine Ralph saying anything like “an’ I’ll tell you right now, tho I wish it weren’t the case, after that 1973 show I never did hear Jimmy play with quite the same elan”).  But according to the program, he’s performing about 150 shows a year, which is nothing to sneeze at.

The hall was about 80% full, I didn’t see as many of my friends as I had expected, and really didn’t even recognize all that many people (rare for me whenever I’m at the BCT).  When the band took the stage, Ralph wasn’t even with them.  As they played a nice tune, I did wonder for a moment how much of the legend we’d actually get to see and/or hear. If I was feeling worried at all, though, I forgot about it when he took the stage, and started the classic bluegrass tradition of introducing the band.

Why do bluegrass musicians always introduce the members of the band individually?  Why do they always make a point of thanking the person who drives their tour bus (who may or may not be a member of the band)?  Why are some songs classic and never a surprise to hear at a Bluegrass performance?  Well, as is so often the case with questions like this, the real reason is because “that’s what everybody does.”  I mean, we can speculate about why people started doing that or why it stuck, but once it’s part of the culture you do it because it’s part of the culture, whether or not the original reason makes sense.

And the thing is, if you’re one of the people who actually started doing those things, that’s what makes you a legend.  And, if after upwards on 10,000 times doing it, it’s still something you do with sincerity (and perhaps a bit of tension that you’ll forget a name) it’s not at all bothersome that it doesn’t seem entirely spontaneous.

And then, when you start singing, and out of your mouth comes a voice scratchy in completely different way from the scratchy recordings of your voice that most of your audience heard at unknown times in their youths and that they filed those sounds in their minds under “that’s what bluegrass singing sounds like”, then you can rest assured that the audience will not feel cheated that you don’t sing every song… they’ll just wait on the edge of their seats for the ones you do sing.

His voice is remarkable, really… kind of hollow sounding, and high-pitched in a way that doesn’t sound like someone trying to sing high in their range.  Like everyone around me, I ate it up.

The introductions continued, and it turns out that his band includes his son (Ralph II) and his grandson (who didn’t seem all that far apart in age, actually).  He also welcomed his roughly ten year old (great?) grandson onto the stage, and the kid had an impressive voice (including being quite in tune, not always a trait found in bluegrass vocalists or 10 year olds).  Two of the other band members have apparently been playing with Ralph for almost exactly 15 years (one of them, according to Ralph, is actually having his 15th anniversay with the band this weekend).  And the bass player was a fill-in for the regular man who is apparently in the hospital with pneumonia.

Why am I telling you all of this?  Well, not just because my descriptions can’t do justice to Ralph’s voice.  But, I had to marvel: how can a man in a red leisure suit and an oddly sculpted “cowboy” hat come off as authentic?  How can someone who’s spent 62 years recording for major record labels and performing at all manner of gigs still seem as much like a genuine “country boy” as a polished show man?

Because, I think, this is his life.  I think that to be a legend, you’ve got to have devoted your life so overwhelmingly to one thing that you are hardly ever associated with anything else.  But then the necessary next step is that people stop thinking of that thing without also thinking of you.  So, then, if you just get on stage and be yourself, it’s automatically what the audience wants.

So, when Ralph joked that he used to play banjo in the band, but got “shot out of the saddle” by the current banjo player, it doesn’t just sound like a tired old joke for the stage, but some better version of the kind of self-deprecating humor that is often expressed in the phrase “senior moment”.  And when he says “but I still do play in the old claw-hammer style” I think it is a subtle but clear admission that his octogenarian fingers just don’t have the coordination anymore to play the fast finger-picking banjo style that bears his name.  But of course, we all wanted to hear how well he could play the banjo just the same.  How’s Ralph doing?  Can he still play?

The answer?  He’s certainly doing more for bluegrass banjo by letting someone else in the band carry on the tradition, but it was great to hear him play.

And, one more entry in the “authenticity” category… he offered to sell the very banjo they were playing.  “Now, some people say, ‘I’m tempted to buy it, but I don’t know how to play.’ Well, let me tell you… one of these days, these banjos I had made for me are really gonna be worth something… and, I’m afraid I won’t be here to take advantage of it when they are.”  In other words, I am trying to cash in on my name, but you could do the same, and maybe better than I can.  Something’s always refreshing to me when people are willing to admit that, of course, they want to make money doing what they are doing.

But, that doesn’t mean it’s the only reason why they are doing it.  And who knows if it’s even the most important reason.  I’m sure it increases sales of their CDs that the band, including Dr. Stanley himself, rushes off the stage and sits behind tables in the lobby to hock the wares…  But I think it’s also an enjoyable part of the night for them.  Besides being heaped with praise, they really shake hands and chat with people, and I think they must enjoy that.  I personally applaud the Bluegrass tradition for keeping the separation between famous performers and average audience members very thin, I can’t think of another musical tradition that is like this.  And, it’s hard to imagine how someone could fail to be authentically moved by someone saying “I saw you play 40 years ago” or “I saw you play 60 years ago”, both of which he tells us that he hears pretty often, and loves to hear it.

He clearly loves it.  I’m sure he could retire comfortably and live out the rest of his days in the part of Virginia that he’s always called home.  But really, the tour bus has got to feel about as much like home as his house does, and it’s not clear to me that he could really enjoy a quiet life in one place.  So I won’t be surprised if he passes through town again.  If he does, I’ll make a point of encouraging my friends to see this Library of Congress certified Living Legend.