Come December, the haunting voice of constant sorrow will go silent.
Bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley, the high lonesome voice of “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “O, Death,” is not planning to end his life. He’s merely retiring, after 68 years of touring. His farewell trek visited Minneapolis on Friday at the long sold-out Cedar Cultural Center.
It was as much a celebration of his legacy as it was a Ralph Stanley show. That’s because grandson Nathan Stanley, 21, was the main lead singer and mouthpiece for the Clinch Mountain Boys (which Ralph founded with his brother Carter in 1946). Ralph Stanley II also sat in for a few numbers, and each of the Clinch Mountain Boys had a featured tune or two.
Ralph, who turns 87 next month, didn’t play banjo at all, hardly talked and didn’t sing all that much. But he was very present — literally and figuratively. Almost every song he didn’t sing either came from his catalog (such as the Stanley Brothers’ “Daybreak in Dixie”) or was about him (Nathan’s “Papaw I Love You”).
Sequined-clad Nathan, who looks like a young Elvis Presley with old Elvis’ girth, demonstrated a pleasing tenor voice and a easygoing command of old-school showmanship and salesmanship (he plugged CDs and testified for Jesus). The two-set, 2 ¼-hour performance (autographs at intermission and afterward) was freewheeling with too much filler, including an unexpected shofar (a ram’s horn associated with Jewish services) performance by fiddler Dewey Brown.
The 450 people came to hear Ralph, and he accommodated them early with “Man of Constant Sorrow” and the a cappella “O Death” (featured in the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou”) and “Pretty Polly” later. He added high harmonies on “Katy Daley,” “Rank Stranger” and few other tunes. His voice may not have been as forceful as in the recent past, but it rang true.
Answering a request for “Amazing Grace,” Ralph stopped after his guitarist played the first three notes, and jokingly asked: “What’s the name of it now?” He then led a church-like singalong.
Frankly, though, Ralph didn’t seem as vital and vibrant as in past performances. As the Clinch Mountain Boys harmonized about death, salvation and the afterlife, Ralph would occasionally stand back, raise his chin and look skyward. The image was as haunting as his voice.