I've seen and heard Ralph Stanley any number of times, once in a high school multipurpose room with the acoustics of a seashell. He's the greatest living exponent of bluegrass music, and just a few years ago, you'd look for him in the out-of-the-way places where this close-to-the-earth form of art music flourishes. He's played at the edges of Washtenaw County, in festivals near Whitmore Lake and Milan. But last January's Folk Festival was his first appearance in Ann Arbor in many years.
Stanley has played fewer festivals over the last couple of years, and not because of advancing age. Bill Monroe, the creator of bluegrass and the only other figure in the tradition with influence equal to Stanley's, was on the road right up to his death just shy of eighty-five. Instead it's because, after all these years, he's become venerated. As a little wave of interest in bluegrass crested a few years ago, rock producer T-Bone Burnett and some other influential people realized that one of the music's founding fathers was still alive and kicking. His rendition of "O Death" was the best thing about the hit film O Brother, Where Art Thou? At age seventy-seven, Stanley visited the big concert stages and outdoor summer music theaters, and with Burnett he recorded Ralph Stanley, his first solo album, backed not by his Clinch Mountain Boys but by a group of musicians specially selected for the project. Big-time publicity was applied to Ralph's inimitable tenor voice, which sounds much as it did forty years ago.
The upshot of all this was that Ralph Stanley realized he was an artist. He'd suspected as much before, billing himself consistently as Dr. Ralph Stanley after receiving an honorary degree from Lincoln Memorial University. But his Folk Festival set took things to a whole new level. He gave all the band members elaborate introductions, building up to his own, which would customarily be offered by a band member. But Dr. Stanley did it himself, a flowery list of accomplishments and travels and honors. He spoke of himself in the third person, like the Wizard of Oz.
The music he made lived up to that promise. For Ralph Stanley, he and Burnett were inspired to record songs that were old even when Stanley first learned them. At the Folk Festival, he did an unaccompanied ballad, and for the finale he led the assembled artists and the audience in "Amazing Grace" by "lining it out" — singing and ornamenting each line as a preacher or song leader would have in a church long ago, before printed hymnals and musical notation took hold.
It all makes you wonder what Ralph Stanley will bring to the Ark on Friday, September 24. He'll have a whole evening in which to lay out the case for the recognition he has so long deserved. When great artists realize late in their careers that that's what they are, it's worth paying attention to what comes next.