A Tribute To The Stanley Tradition: Unlimited Tradition – Mountain Arts Center (Prestonburg, KY)
About 20 minutes east of Lexington, Kentucky, the Mountain Parkway veers away from Interstate 64, narrowing down as it rises up through the hills of eastern Kentucky to Salyersville, the Magoffin County seat. From there, an even smaller road winds even higher until, just as an urbanite begins to wonder if he’s lost the way, it comes into Prestonsburg, Floyd County’s business center and home of the Mountain Arts Center, a new building that hides, behind its unprepossessing exterior, a modernistic, 1,000-seat theater.
Prestonsburg lies just off US Route 23, arguably the original Hillbilly Highway, and it’s hospitable territory for bluegrass as a matter of course, but especially so for artists whose sound derives from the Stanley Brothers: Carter and Ralph’s Dickenson County lies nearby, just across the Virginia line. It’s not surprising, then, that when Doobie Shea Records owner (and powerful rhythm guitarist) Tim Austin rolled into town on this foggy day to present three of his label’s acts and a live version of his two award-winning, all-star albums paying tribute to the Stanley sound, the turnout was large and the crowd enthusiastic.
The evening opened with sets from Unlimited Tradition and Ernie Thacker & Rt. 23, two young bands that draw their personnel largely from the area. The former, fronted by songwriter Ray Craft and Stanley acolyte Scottie Sparks, mixed the lonesome sound of the Stanley Brothers with the thumping, bottom-heavy drive of Austin’s former outfit, the Lonesome River Band, on a strong set of mostly original songs. Thacker, a former member of Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys, stuck to more widely-known fare, mainly the result of the band’s recent vintage (Austin is an inveterate songhunter for his roster).
Next up was the debut of Mountain Heart, an ensemble built around a trio of former members of Doyle Lawson’s Quicksilver — guitarist Steve Gulley, banjo player Barry Abernathy, and 21-year-old Jimmy Van Cleve, a phenomenal fiddler — plus Johnny Dowdle, a chunky, good-natured young bassist from North Carolina. The announcement of the band’s formation a few months ago had gotten plenty of attention by virtue of the presence of Adam Steffey, a former member of Alison Krauss’ Union Station and one of the most admired mandolin players around.
Steffey dropped out shortly before this show, a blow that might have wrecked the band, but didn’t. With the hastily added Jeff Davis filling the mandolin slot, Mountain Heart presented a powerful set that leaned heavily on new material from Gulley and other writers, yet salted with a few critical nods to the past, especially a glittering fiddle and banjo duet on the “Gray Eagle Hornpipe”. Gulley is a high-voiced, soulful singer with a strong country bent, and Abernathy has been singing parts underneath him for years; with Dowdle’s strong third voice, it made for a trio that balanced smoothness with passion. The set previewed their forthcoming Doobie Shea album, which looks to be a dandy.
As solid and well-received as the openers were, the crowd was ready for the Stanley tribute, and when the core band for the set took the stage, the whoops and hollers started up and never really died down. Given the busy schedules of all involved, it was remarkable that Austin had been able to assemble so many of the musicians who appear on the Stanley Tradition albums; freelance fiddler Aubrey Haynie, mandolinist/singer Dan Tyminski (Union Station), banjo wizard Craig Smith and Austin himself were there, with Dennis Crouch, a Nashville bassist who has logged time with Paul Burch and others, the only new face. Over the driving instrumental foundation laid by this ensemble, a succession of vocalists — Virginians James King and Junior Sisk, Kentuckians Don Rigsby, Thacker and Sparks, and Vermont expatriate Tyminski — worked their way through hit after Stanley hit.
What distinguished these performances from the ordinary — these are canonical songs that can be heard wherever there’s a bluegrass festival — was the rich interplay between the spirits of the musicians and the summoned spirits of the Brothers themselves. As Austin said of the albums, “We always try to share the feel of the Stanley sound to younger audiences, but as far as the two Stanley tributes, we never really tried to create the sound they made. It was more a sharing with each other of the influences the Stanley sound had on each one of us.”
What that meant at this show was a profound reinterpretation of one of the most important bodies of work in bluegrass. Echoes of Carter’s mournful, husky voice and Ralph’s rapid-fire banjo and melismatic tenor wove in and out of the distinctive styles of the performers themselves, creating a kind of double-vision that shifted between the Mountain Arts Center of 1999 and a schoolhouse theater of 1959 as an old phrase would suggest a new one, evoking yet another old one, and so on, in a quintessentially bluegrass cycle. Driving home afterward, one was deeply aware that these same hills had looked down on the Stanleys themselves as they made their way from show to show; the past was that present.
The point? Austin says it is that “newcomers might try out the real thing for themselves” — that is, be moved to dig into the Stanley motherlode. The fact is, though, what happened at the MAC that night was plenty real all by its lonesome.