Thanks to Doctor William H.B. Howard, famed for his sports medicine forefront work, a living legend of bluegrass made it to Bel Air Sunday afternoon and set the small venue on fire, backed by the Clinch Mountain Boys.
Turns out Dr. Howard (just call me Bill) has known and treated Ralph Stanley for years. ‘We’ve been pals a long time and my daughter, Patty, and me decided to ‘make it happen’ and approached the folks at John Carroll to provide the venue and take home the proceeds.” Dr. Howard is often seen on area television stations when sports injuries occur to professional athletes.
Yep, it was Ralph Stanley himself, trim at 81, suited out in black with a white Stetson. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears…in this trendy sports bar known as Looney’s North, a few heads got together among friends and Dr. Howard to figure a way to raise some funds for John Carroll School. How on earth in this mix of medicine and mentality the notion of Ralph Stanley coming to Bel Air for a fundraiser came up I’ll never know, but it did and sure as hell lots of folks who came and saw the icon were thrilled with the honor of his visit.
The house was perfect, not over-sold, not a bunch of muscle-heads trying to win at arm-wrestling, just a neat ‘three generation’ gathering of bluegrass music enthusiasts who like good food, beer and music. With that said, the stage was set for the show which started promptly at 4 on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.
The patriarch of bluegrass and his five-piece band included men who’ve been with him over 40 years and a couple, including his grandson, Nathan Stanley, who’ve just done what comes naturally with ‘blood relatives’ — make the music you love.
Sunday’s line up at Looney’s was lead guitar, James Shelton, rhythm guitar and mandolin Nathan Stanley, Steve Sparkman on banjo, Dewey Brown, fiddle, and the ever popular Jack Cooke, standup bass. Just one look at these fellas and I knew I was in the presence of greatness…the first time I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them in person.
With a hearty “Welcome music lovers!” the boys got into some classics, each done after a proper introduction was made for that band member’s contributions over the years. Through the first tunes Ralph was playing ‘air banjo’ and amusing himself all the while.
He has been in the music business 62 years without a break and Nathan was proud to announce a litany of awards from President Reagan right up to an award due later this month from our present Commander in Chief. For much of the soundtrack on “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou”, a classic film by the Farley Brothers, Mr. Stanley won Grammy’s.
One of his opening numbers was “Oh Death” and its haunting lyric, without accompaniment was spellbinding. Such a powerful presence in such a peaceful body…that’s Ralph Stanley. He was in perfect voice and let it loose with “Lay Down Your Watch and Chain”, the gospel favorite, “I’ll Answer the Call”, “White Dove”….’we’ll all be together some day…’…and on and on, featuring each and every member of the Clinch Mountain Boys.
Then a rare treat from such a revered artist….he asked if anyone in the audience had a special request, to send it up to the band. The rendition of “Long Black Veil” was mesmerizing…for me the best song of the afternoon.
Years ago Ralph and the Boys played the famed New River Ranch, on Route 1 in Cecil County. Greats in country music played there often, and a ‘live’ recording of the band playing there in 1959 was on sale at today’s show with E.C. French, the tour bus driver and merchandise agent handling the cash.
Yet another high point was Ralph taking on Steve Sparkman’s banjo and playing it ‘claw hammer style’…no picks just fingers held together…and he was on the money as the tempo picked up and the band smoked on.
Tipping his Stetson a full head of silver hair shined like a halo and the boys tore into yet another request, “Rank Stranger”…another powerfully done arrangement. “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Pretty Polly”, requested and delivered.
As over an hour’s playing continued non-stop, Mr. Stanley checked his watch and asked for more requests. “Sunny Side of the Mountain” and the last tune of the day, “Orange Blossom Special” lit Looney’s up as R.S. left the stage to sign autographs and chat with the fans. His parting words were, “God Bless America.”
Pimlico might have had Bob Dylan and a slew of other wild artists, but Looney’s had Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys…and the local music lovers were pleased. Thank you Mr. Stanley…and thank you Dr. Howard.
Todd Holden, a photo-journalist who was hired with no experience and handed a camera and told to ‘just write what you see, tell the truth and be fair’…words offered by the late John D. Worthington,III…when he was hired by The Aegis in 1966. The rest is history.