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Sunday Evening Service With the People's Reverend: Ralph Stanley

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Somewhere 32,000 feet above West Virginia, I sat in a crammed small airplane reading notes from famed folklorist Alan Lomax's southern journey in the late 1950s. As the plane started its gradual and bumpy descent into the New York City area, I highlighted this line that Lomax had written in preparation for one of his trips down south: "the essence of America lies not in the headlined heroes... but in the everyday folks who live and die unknown, yet leave their dreams as legacies." If such is the essence of America, then Ralph Stanley may very well be singing the soundtrack of the legacies -- and never have we felt so honored to be the "everyday folks."

The first time I had seen Ralph Stanley perform live was under the most unlikely of circumstances. It was just 10 years ago, when he and his musical comrades -- Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, James Carter and Alison Krauss -- showcased songs from the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack at Carnegie Hall. It was a "special" show, intended to bring together New York City art critics for a night of back porch music on the most un-back porch of all stages. A sense of displaced formality crept over the audience as they dressed in their Sunday best, as though to pay homage to the living and breathing cultural institution that was resurging in front of them.

Ralph Stanley's solo show at New York's City Winery on November 11 required no such formality, no such marked distinction to separate the performers from the audience -- only a shared embrace of the music that has emerged from deep within the walls of an American culture that seems so distant from these days of immediacy, instant gratification and a bit more indulgence than is necessary. Standing no more than five feet tall with a white cowboy hat adding five extra inches, and dressed in his neatly pressed suit, as though headlining the Grand Ole Opry for the first time, Dr. Stanley was both the bandleader and narrator for the night, momentarily converting City Winery into a 21st Century urban vaudeville stage.

"We hope you enjoy some of this old-time, mountain-style-what-they-call-bluegrass-music," the 85 year-old Stanley said in his charming southern Virginia accent before launching into the anthemic "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow." And, carrying on the great tradition of community music that birthed so many of these songs, Dr. Stanley and his standup bass player, fiddler, banjo player and guitarists played only audience requests, often punctuating the songs with comedic tales of the sort of life you imagine only exists in folktales, but hope is still possible somewhere.

It's no exaggeration to say that Dr. Stanley is still every bit the legendary performer that precedes his iconic status in American music. He may leave the lead banjo playing to his band, but when he temporarily strapped on his banjo and played in the slowly fading clawhammer-style, he played with a vigor and pace so fast that 200 boot heels stomping shook the wooden floors harder than a passing subway beneath City Winery. His voice has only grown more authentic with age -- it's now a delicate rasp lending a haunting, yet mesmerizing, element to the lyrics:

O, Death,
Won't you spare me over til another year?/
Well what is this that I can't see,
with ice-cold hands takin' hold of me?/
Well I am death, none can excel,
I'll open the door to heaven or hell./
Whoa, death someone would pray,
Could you wait to call me another day?

The audience, as much a part of the music as the musicians themselves, called for traditional songs -- "Angel Band," "White Dove," "Little Birdie," "Green Pastures," "Pretty Polly," and "I'll Fly Away." The old songs, it seems, are new again -- or maybe, they never did get old -- as they echo the simple and timeless themes of redemption, humility and perseverance. Following a prolonged period of politically contested definitions of what it means to be "everyday folk" and what it means to live in urban-blue states or rural-red states, Ralph Stanley's traditional hymns of salvation mixed with foot-stomping, hand-clapping and knee slapping songs of hope beyond hardship, resonated universally through that diverse New York City audience in a way that suggested some themes might just transcend even the greatest of our cultural differences.

As long as Ralph Stanley is recording and performing, we are reminded of songs that still need to be heard, telling these tales from the country that still need to be told.