If you made it to the Ryman Auditorium for the IBMA awards last month -- the last ceremonies in Nashville for at least the next three years -- or got to see the live stream online, or listen on WSM.com or Sirius-XM, you heard a lot of special performances. There was the new all-star band of Del McCoury, Bobby Osborne, J.D. Crowe, Bobby Hicks and Del’s bassist brother Jerry McCoury; Josh Williams and Chris Jones singing with Special Consensus with twin fiddles by Sam Bush and Bobby Hicks (great to hear so much of Bobby’s fiddling that night); and of course, that crowd of banjo players putting the “mass” in Mastertone, a gathering of a few dozen of the best pickers in bluegrass, paying tribute to the late Earl Scruggs in the “Foggy Mt. Breakdown” finale, fronted by the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys.
But while there were pickers aplenty, some of the most memorable moments were provided by the human voice. There was Steve Martin, introducing the banjo finale with his beautiful tribute to Scruggs that brought Martin, along with many in the sold-out crowd, to tears.
For pure singing pleasure, though, you couldn’t beat the a cappella quartet of Jamie Dailey, Darrin Vincent, Jeff Parker and Christian Davis doing “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.” There are some Youtube clips of that one. Check it out. Hair will be raised.
And while there will be lots of great picking at Bluegrass Underground in the next few weeks, October is all bout the singing.
There will be twice as many concerts as usual, but that doesn’t mean each will be half as good. Instead, two of the best and most influential voices in bluegrass (and newgrass) will be making their way to The Volcano Room this month.
Saturday, Oct. 13, it’s Peter Rowan. Rowan has spent almost 50 years at the forefront of bluegrass, and his career makes him a human Rorschach test for bluegrass fans. Traditionalists honor Rowan the Blue Grass Boy who co-wrote and performed one of the best Bill Monroe songs of the 1960s, “Walls of Time.” Newgrassers and jam band fans cite his work with Old & In the Way, the all-star California hippie bluegrass band that featured Jerry Garcia on Banjo, David Grisman on mandolin and Vassar Clements on fiddle. Theen there’s the solo Rowan. As a singer-songwriter he hasn’t shied away from controversial material, whether it’s his pot anthems, “Panama Red” and “The Free Mexican Air Force,” or his libertarian murder ballad, “Ruby Ridge.”
I first saw him more than 40 years ago with his bluegrass-flavored folk-rock band Seatrain, featuring the great Richard Greene on fiddle (who was in the same edition of the Blue Grass Boys as Rowan and also played with Muleskinner, a precursor to much of the “new acoustic music” movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s, with the great Bill Keith on banjo and flatpicking master Clarence White on lead guitar). Seatrain almost stole the show from the headliners, the original Band, then touring with their then-new second album, their best. Like I say, Peter Rowan is a man with a catalog deeper than Cumberland Caverns.
I’ve seen him a few dozen times since then in solo, duo and band settings and he is always worth the price of admission. No one combines great traditional bluegrass singing with such a distinctively personal contemporary approach. He’s one of the true greats.
Oct. 27, it’s a man who makes Rowan look like a green kid,as Ralph Stanley returns to Bluegrass Underground. 2012 marks 65 years since Ralph and his late brother Carter first recorded as The Stanley Brothers. One of their earliest records was “Molly & Tenbrooks,” learned from hearing Bill Monroe do it live. They recorded it before he did, earning that legendary Monrovian wrath.
Since then, Ralph has been part of many of the greatest bluegrass records ever made - “Rank Strangers,” “White Dove,” “The Fields Have Turned Brown,” as well as the seminal album The Stanley Brothers made for King Records that diehard fans refer to reverently as “King 615” (the record’s release number) as if citing bible verse.
Then there were the dozens of albums made after his brother died in 1966, records that featured such great Clinch Mountain Boys as Larry Sparks, Roy Lee Centers, Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs and Charlie Sizemore. And then of course, there was the O Brother soundtrack that earned all those GRAMMYs and Oscars.
After all that, Ralph has certainly earned the right to stay home. But he belongs onstage, something he proved yet again the first time he played Bluegrass Underground.
I was, frankly, amazed. I’d heard a couple of shows in recent years in which his voice was shot. But Dr. Ralph Stanley is seemingly a miracle of modern medicine. He’s had a pacemaker installed and I think I might need to get one, too. It’s shaved 20 years off him, and today, he’s sounding and looking great. When he sang “O Death” at that first Bluegrass Underground, he turned the Volcano Room into a great stone cathedral, as powerful and moving a performance as I’ve ever witnessed.
Ralph Stanley and Peter Rowan are both certified musical treasures and two of the greatest voices ever heard in bluegrass. If you’ve never seen them before, do not miss them at Bluegrass Underground this month. And if you have seen them before, then you don’t need me to tell you not to miss them at Bluegrass Underground this month. You already know. - Larry Nager