COEBURN, Va. — The rains came and Jimmy Martin didn’t. But apart from these disappointments, it was pretty much business as usual at Ralph Stanley’s 34th annual Memorial Bluegrass Festival, held Thursday (May 27) through Saturday (May 29) at the Hills of Home Park near Coeburn, Va. Prominent in the talent lineup were artists who had worked with Stanley at pivotal points in his career, among them Patty Loveless, Jim Lauderdale, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and Larry Sparks.
Torrential rainstorms and at least one tornado hit the mountainous region Wednesday (May 28) and may have had something to do with the smaller than expected opening day turnout. The weather got better, however, on Friday and Saturday — and attendance picked up accordingly. Martin and his band, the Sunny Mountain Boys, were scheduled to close the first day’s show, but the singer remains debilitated from cancer treatments.
Stanley himself was absent from the opening day’s lineup. He had to cancel his scheduled spot in order to make a New York appearance Thursday night on the Great High Mountain tour. His son, Ralph II, and his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, filled in for him. The Lewis Family covered for Martin.
Backed by a crack five-piece band clad in ninja black, singer, songwriter and actor Jim Lauderdale did an afternoon and an evening show on Friday, during which he drew mostly from his own compositions, including “Red Bird,” “The Apples Are Just Turning Ripe” and, from his new album, Headed for the Hills, “Looking Elsewhere” and “Sandy Ford (Barbara Lee).” Lauderdale shared a best bluegrass album Grammy with Stanley in 2002 for their Lost in the Lonesome Pines. He told the audience he is now producing an album on Jack Cooke, Stanley’s longtime bass player and a former member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. Among the members of Lauderdale’s band was Dobro player Randy Kohrs, who provided the memorable intro to Dierks Bentley’s first hit, “What Was I Thinkin’.”
Welch and Rawlings also did two shows on Friday. They have become festival favorites over the past several years. Both were on the multi-platinum O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack album with Stanley and later appeared with him on the Down From the Mountain tour the album inspired.
The crowd gave Loveless an uproarious reception for her Friday night show. And she didn’t disappoint. She reminded the audience that she was from just across the border in Kentucky and had been raised on bluegrass music. Her all-acoustic band included her husband and producer, Emory Gordy Jr., on stand-up bass. The only concession she made to her country roots was the inclusion of Billy Thomas on a very subtly played snare drum. Loveless, who officially welcomed Stanley into the Grand Ole Opry in 2000 and sang on his Clinch Mountain Country album, opened with “The Boys Are Back in Town,” from her Mountain Soul collection. She followed with “Daniel Prayed” and “Rise Up Lazarus” from the same album and “On Your Way Home,” the title track from her current CD. The emotional high point came, though, when she dedicated “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” the story of a doomed coal miner, to her late father, John Ramey, a miner afflicted with black lung disease. Then she sang “The Grandpa That I Know,” a selection from her new album, in tribute to Gordy’s grandfather. The enthusiastic crowd would hardly let her leave the stage.
After the Loveless hubbub died down, Stanley and his band came out for the evening’s final set. He called Loveless back to accompany him on “Pretty Polly” and then brought Welch and Rawlings out to sing with him on “Gold Watch and Chain.” Loveless returned to help out with “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.” During a break in the song, the usually reserved Stanley danced Loveless around the stage. “Well, I don’t know what to do after that,” he admitted. What he did, though, was beckon Welch and Rawlings back to sing “Angel Band” with him.
As the midnight hour approached, Lauderdale joined Stanley on stage, declaring, “I think this has been the best night of any of the festivals I’ve been at.” Then he launched into the whimsically boastful, “She’s Lookin’ at Me,” with Stanley and Ralph II elbowing in for their share of attention. Before relinquishing the spotlight, Lauderdale led the entire band in “I Feel Like Singing Today.”
Although a weakened Charlie Waller had to sit during his two performances on Friday with his band, the Country Gentlemen, he demonstrated beyond question that he still possesses one of the richest, most moving voices in bluegrass. He wowed the crowd with such standards as “Matterhorn,” “Redwood Hill” and “Ages and Ages Ago” and praised such influences as Gene Autry, Hank Snow and Eddy Arnold. The band’s four-part vocal harmonies smoothed the gap between bluegrass and country, and they were put to splendid use for the encore, “Fox on the Run.”
The Dale Kennedy Band, which played Saturday night, was a living reminder of the days when there was no gap between country and bluegrass. The group sparkled with its renderings of such long-ago hits as “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight,” “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again,” “You Are My Flower,” “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music” and “I Wonder How the Old Folks Are at Home.”
The Marshall Family drew cheers with its cover of Josh Turner’s recent country hit, “Long Black Train,” a song that looks to be well on its way to becoming a bluegrass staple. “I get a lot of requests for that song,” master of ceremonies Willard Hall, a disc jockey at WMMT in Whitesburg, Ky., told the Marshalls. “But I won’t play it. It’s country, and I’m 100 percent bluegrass. Record it bluegrass, and I’ll play the fire out of it.”
Larry Sparks was the next-to-last act on the Saturday night segment that closed the festival. A commanding figure in double-breasted suit and trim, wavy hair, Sparks led a first-rate four-piece band through such familiar fare as “Kentucky Girl,” “Heart Trouble,” “Smokey Mountain Memories,” “Tennessee 1949” and “Doin’ My Time.” When Carter Stanley died in 1966, ending the Stanley Brothers as an act, it was Sparks who moved into his place as Ralph Stanley’s lead vocalist. Recently, Sparks completed an album for Rebel Records that features Stanley, Vince Gill, Andy Griggs, Ricky Skaggs, Tom T. Hall, Sonya Isaacs, Rhonda Vincent, Alison Krauss and others as guest artists.
Stanley and his band brought the festival to an end with a set that spotlighted veteran guitarist George Shuffler, who began working with the Stanleys in 1950. Bowing to a request shouted from the audience, Shuffler and Stanley joined voices for the mournful “Little Bessie.” Shuffler said he and Stanley used to sing the song for hours on end to keep themselves awake as they drove between gigs. He also did a guitar rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Ralph Stanley II is emerging as a formidable performer in his own right and earning comparisons as the band’s lead vocalist to one of his most distinguished predecessors, the late Keith Whitley. His festival appearances showed that he knows the Stanley catalog inside out, even as he was showcasing new material. One composition that earned him standing ovations was “Carryin’ On,” a tribute to his father and uncle.
Other acts at the festival were Will Mullins & the Virginia Playboys, the Singing Conquerors, the Cherryholmes Family, the Bluegrass Brothers, Larry Sigmon and Barbara Poole, the Bluegrass Strangers, the Kentucky Mountain Boys and Melvin Goins & Windy Mountain.