Growing old doesn’t necessarily make a marvel out of a man; it’s what you do with your earthly time that matters. Ralph Stanley turned 84 in February, and Wednesday night at Knuckleheads he showed about 125 reverent fans that he is still living well and eminently and plans to keep on doing so for a while. For slightly more than two hours, counting a 20-minute break, he and his Clinch Mountain Boys delivered more than two dozen old-time country songs, ballads and hymns about love, heartache, murder and the goodness and glory of the afterlife. Stanley is slight and slow-moving these days. His voice, too, has lost some of its heft, but little of its high-lonesome soul. He rations his performance time, acting more like the curator of his own show than its spotlight performer. So he delegates duties, calling audibles and directing his band members, most of whom showed off their considerable skills on instrumentals. His setlist included several of those, including “Clinch Mountain Backstep” and a rowdy version of “Orange Blossom Special.” He also delivered his versions of well-known songs, like “A Man of Constant Sorrow,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Pretty Polly,” and his signature song, “O, Death.”
For most of the second half of the show, he invited the audience to shout out requests, which he and his band redeemed, sometimes after a brief, low-spoken huddle for a primer on lyrics. Among those: “Room at the Top of the Stairs,” “I Only Exist,” “White Dove” and an all-band a cappella version of “Amazing Grace.” He showed off his wry, dry sense of humor several times. None was more charming than when, during “Rank Stranger,” he sang a verse to another song and then stood corrected, by his grandson, guitarist Nathan Stanley (who resembles a ‘70s-era Elvis Presley). After Nathan Stanley led the band in a version of “Long Black Veil,” he coaxed his grandfather into strapping on a banjo. Before he did, Stanley took off his suit coat and feigned tossing it at the front row. He then performed several measures of an instrumental tune, kicking up the tempo considerably at the end, proving that his fingers are still familiar with the rudiments. The setlist comprised nearly 30 songs, and most of them were old-time classics, like “Worried Man Blues,” “A Robin Built a Nest on Daddy’s Grave,” “Riding the Midnight Train,” “Uncle Penn” “Stone Walls and Steel Bars” and the spirituals “Lift Him Up, That’s All” and “Angel Band.” He also revived “A Little Boy Called Joe,” a song he’d recorded in the 1970s, he said, and one he hasn’t performed much since.
He closed with another favorite, “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” then “Orange Blossom Special.” He rewarded the crowd for its enthusiastic response by adding another encore, “I’ll Fly Away.” It was getting late, but the 84-year-old doctor wasn’t ready to call it a night.