For most Nashvillians, last night was just another cold February evening. But for the lucky few packed inside the Station Inn, it was the chance to see bluegrass legend and Grand Ole Opry member Ralph Stanley celebrate his 87th birthday with a rare – and final – performance at the hallowed bluegrass venue. The concert was part of Stanley’s tour, “The Man of Constant Sorrow Tour: The Dr.’s Farewell.” The tour stretches throughout 2014 with Stanley accompanied by his longtime band, the Clinch Mountain Boys. After it’s over, Stanley will take a breather from more than six decades on the road – first as part of the duo the Stanley Brothers with his brother Carter, and then as a solo artist with the Clinch Mountain Boys following Carter’s death in 1966.
Stanley’s grandson, 21-year-old Nathan Stanley (who also plays guitar and sings in the band), was the night’s emcee. The young Stanley was host to an impressive lineup of fellow artists who surprised Dr. Stanley by showing up to play a few songs in his honor. Former Clinch Mountain Boys member Larry Sparks entertained the crowd and was soon followed by Larry Cordle.
“Our ‘Beatles’ were the Stanley Brothers when I was a young boy,” Cordle told the crowd. “Whether he knows it or not, he saved my life a lot of lonesome nights.” Larry then launched into the Stanley Brothers’ “Love Me Darlin’, Just Tonight” while Dr. Stanley sat behind him onstage and listened intently.
In addition to the musical tributes, BMI’s Perry Howard presented Stanley with a special citation of appreciation from BMI in celebration of 60 years as a BMI songwriter and performer. “When you talk about American roots music history, there’s no one any more important than Dr. Ralph Stanley in that field,” said Howard.
The Station Inn’s Bob Smiley also presented Stanley with an award. “We just want to thank Dr. Ralph for all the years he’s come down here and graced our stage and put on some great music – and for all the years of contribution he’s made to our bluegrass world here as well as everywhere.”
After a short break during which Dr. Stanley chatted with fans, he and the Clinch Mountain Boys performed a full set of Stanley Brothers/bluegrass classics including “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Rank Stranger,” “Pretty Polly” and “Angel Band.”
Time may have affected his ability to play the 5-string banjo and weathered Dr. Stanley’s voice a bit, but he still commands a room effortlessly and his sense of humor remains ageless. As Stanley sang the haunting a cappella dirge “O Death” (which won him a 2002 GRAMMY for Best Male Country Vocal Performance and which many know from the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack), he silenced the room with the song’s dark lyrics. But as he pleaded the song’s final line, “O Death, won’t you spare me over ‘til another year?” he grinned and sang the words “Thank you” as a humorous coda.
As the set came to an end, Stanley expressed his gratitude. “I want to thank all of you folks for doing this for me,” he said. “It’s all a surprise to me. I’ve sat there and heard a lot of good things.
“I appreciate each and every one of you coming out and helping us celebrate my 100th birthday,” he added with a smile.