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.
[Originally published in September, 2004.]