November 17, 2012

Ralph Stanley and Me

Last year one of my favorite bands announced that they were splitting up and never getting back together, and I hated myself for never seeing them perform live when I had the chance. If there was ever a lesson in not putting things off to the last minute, that was it.

So, when I found out that bluegrass and music legend Ralph Stanley would be playing in a little town between Atlanta and the Alabama state line, a mere half hour to forty-five minutes away from me, I decided I had to go. I've never seen him perform live before. As you all know, I love me some bluegrass, and when you think of that genre of music, who is one of the first people to come to mind? Also, he's 85, so this could possibly be my last chance.

My problems started when the person I was planning to go with had a work thing come up that they couldn't get out of. By the time we found this out, everyone else in the free world who I knew would sit through that concert already had plans, ranging from Thanksgiving travel to the stupid Twilight movie premier weekend to a bad case of Youwanmetosithroughthatbackwoodscrapitis.

On Wednesday afternoon, I gave up trying to find someone to accompany me and decided I would go by myself. Yes, me, the person who would not even go to a city council meeting alone when she was earning the big bucks to play reporter girl and who shuns people who see movies alone would be going to a concert all by herself.

That was probably one of the best decisions I have ever made.  I had the time of my life, got to see several legendary musicians perform, and got some fresh ideas for my book that has been put on the back-burner for a while. 

I got there kind of early, around 5:45 pm, because I had no idea where I was going or what to expect. The doors were supposed to open at 6:30 pm, and the parking lot was practically empty when I arrived. There was a large group of old women standing around on the sidewalk, but other than that, it was just me and a shiny tour bus.  I played with my phone for a bit, but around 6:00 pm, I got bored with that and decided to go on inside. There was a big group of older people (I was literally the only person there under 50 at this point and maybe one of twenty by the end of the night) standing around talking and enjoying refreshments. I saw a couple go into the auditorium, and while I'm not quite sure we were supposed to do that just yet, I followed them inside.

The place was empty, and I had a general admission ticket, so I made my way to the front of that section to secure the best possible seat. I was literally in the front, right next to the stage. I could hear banjos and guitars warming up in the back. It gave me chills. But the greatest moment came just before I got to my seat.  I looked up and Ralph Stanley's grandson was helping him down the stairs from the stage to go up to the lobby. They walked right by me, and I so wanted so badly to say something, but I couldn't think of anything profound. Before I knew it, some old lady who had also gone into the theater a little early was asking him to take pictures with her, so I just had a seat and waited. 

I stayed in my seat while the people in the lobby mingled with the man himself. I actually called my dad at this point (I was bored) to tell him about it. While I was talking to my dad, this guy walked by with a banjo in his hand, and said "hello." I knew he was not part of Ralph Stanley's band, so I assumed maybe he was some kind of technician or something. Oh, how wrong I was.

The show started at 7:00 pm, and when the opening act took the stage, I noticed that the banjo-carrying guy was with them. Turns out it was just Oteil Burbridge, the bass player for the Allman Brothers. My parents are huge Allman Brothers fans, and as it turns out my dad is a huge fan of Burbridge's other projects, too. I texted him to let him know what was going on, and that's pretty much all he's talked to me about since then.  Hey, I tried to get him to go when I ran out of friends to take, but he didn't want to fork over the cash for the ticket. He regrets that now. 

Anyway, the opening band was really good. It consisted of David and Zach Steed, who are actually local to the area, James McKinney, who can do things with a banjo I didn't think possible, and Burbridge, who is ridiculously talented.

They played for about half an hour or so, and finally, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys came out. I've been to a gazillion concerts in my lifetime, but most of them were in huge arenas. This little 400-something seat theater made for a very intimate show, and I loved every minute of it!

Immediately, they launched into "Man of Constant Sorrow," followed by one of my favorites "Little Maggie." The only problem I had with this was that he skipped over my favorite part of "Little Maggie" (pretty flowers were made for blooming/pretty stars were made to shine/pretty women were made for lovin') and I'm not sure if that was on purpose or not. There were a few times when he forgot lyrics or repeated himself, but it just seemed like part of the show. It was endearing and fun and added to the intimacy of it all.  The man is a great showman, even at 85, and kept me entertained, whether he was singing, playing the banjo letting the guys in his band do the singing and strumming, or talking about whatever it was he wanted to talk about.

To be in a room with these six men who can make some of the most beautiful sounds ever heard on Earth out of a bunch of wood and string was something I'll never forget. Like I said, most of my concert experiences have been big arena shows with flashy lights and instruments that require electricity. None of that was necessary here, and I'm sorry I haven't gone to more concerts like this in my 30 years on earth.

They played several popular songs, and a few songs I wasn't too familiar with. They did a few gospel songs, too. One of my favorite moments was when Dr. Ralph took off his jacket and played the banjo in his traditional claw-hammer style during "Rocky Island."  From what I understand, his arthritis is too bad to play much anymore, but he sounded amazing to me. The fiddle player killed it on the final number, "Orange Blossom Special." You would have thought a train was really driving through the auditorium. And Ralph's son came out to play a few songs with him, including another one of my favorites, "Katie Daley." The "O Death" solo, when the rest of the band left the stage and let Mr. Stanley sing alone, was also a memorable moment. 

After the show, Dr. Ralph and all of the band members said they would stick around and take pictures and sign autographs until everyone had what they wanted, but the lobby was so ridiculously crowded that I decided I could do without that. I got what I came for - a fun night, a whole new appreciation of a man and the music that I love so much, and some inspiration to finish editing my book and do something with it besides let it sit on a thumb drive beside my computer.

That's also one thing I can mark off my bucket list. The entire show was perfect.

P.S. I took several pictures and lots of video, but I did it all with my rusty, trusty iPhone, so the quality is not that fabulous.  I was literally sitting right by the stage, but it's so hard to tell in any of it. 

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