Levon Helm's Midnight Rambles were in full rolling glory in the winter of 2011. One Saturday night that December had long been anticipated -- for starters, Donald Fagen would be joining Levon's band that evening. But there were also two guest acts on the bill, not just one, and both were aces. The first set of special guests? Jimmy Vivino with Garth Hudson, both coming home to "The Barn," where they'd played many times before. Also appearing: Dawes, with their own special guest, Jackson Browne. It was too much music, almost, for even Woodstock to handle. The show sold out in a flash, of course.
Then we got a magnificent bonus. People who'd already planned to come to town for Saturday pounced on tickets for a newly announced show for the night before. They extended their trip and booked another night at the Wild Rose or the Inn on the Millstream. Folks who lived here got ready to welcome a group of gentlemen from further down the same mountain chain -- the Blue Ridge. The show that was now scheduled for that Friday, December 2? The Clinch Mountain Boys and Dr. Ralph Stanley at Levon's Barn.
It's often been said, by those who were lucky enough to go to so much as a single Ramble during Helm's lifetime, that the atmosphere in the Barn was spiritual -- jubilation and contemplation, a cross between a camp meeting and church. Never was it more so than on that evening.
Stanley, formally, even regally, suited against the cold, stood among his bandmates -- like Helm's, his family -- with his head bowed, a solemn preacher man. His hands were folded in knotted prayer before him; as he'd told Bluegrass Unlimited earlier in 2011, "arthritis has sort of took care of my fingers."
Stanley was almost 85 years old. Like Helm, he was a slight man who you could never remotely think of as small. When either of them raised their eyes to an audience and opened their mouths, you stilled and listened.
Courtly, Stanley introduced his fellows: grandson Nathan, who replied lovingly to his "Papaw"; Dewey Brown on the fiddle; James Alan Shelton, his longtime and excellent lead guitar player. He sang plaints and ballads, heartbreakers and galvanizers. "Pretty Polly" is a song that will always chill beyond the bone; in Stanley's thin, keen sinew of a voice it bears a special kind of pain. When he sang the line, "I dug on your grave better part of last night," I knew the line was coming and still shivered.
At the close of his set, Stanley asked the audience for requests. One voice rang out: a friend, Andrew Shober, called for "Rank Stranger." Stanley nodded, and cued the start. Shober, whose Apple Pickers' Union was one of Helm's favorite bands, and a regular opening act from the early days of the Rambles, closed his eyes and sang along to the song Ralph and his brother Carter had made their own so many decades ago.
After the Ramble, the Clinch Mountain Boys assembled downstairs. It was late, they were tired, but Dr. Ralph sat patiently behind a table, signing merchandise and speaking to every person in a long line. He spotted my Virginia accent right away, and smiled to hear we had family in Bristol and in Washington and Wise counties.
"We're headin' back home tonight," he shared. "It's a long way, but it'll be good to get there."
He laughed a little laugh at my surprise. "I'm not drivin'," he said.
He was still sitting there, every hair in place in his pale pompadour, bright dark eyes taking in every fan personally, as I left for my own short path to sleep.
Dino Perrucci's photographs of the evening give you some sense of what it felt like to be there. I hope you enjoy them. But I want to say this: go hear live music by artists you appreciate any time that you can. I know I'm singing to the choir here, but truly, just go. No photographs or recordings -- however fine -- can replace what you hold in your head and your heart in long days to come.
Anne Margaret Daniel's long feature story about eight years of Rambles in Levon Helm's Barn will appear in the Summer 2016 issue of ND in print.