“I'm thankful that I have lived long enough to become a legend, and I hope I deserve it.”
- Ralph Stanley
There is nothing complicated about Ralph Stanley and his music. It simply resonates across the room like light from a fireplace, warm and smoky and homey.
That’s precisely why “Man of Constant Sorrow: The Stanley Brothers Musical,” which opened at the Electric City Playhouse last night worked so well. Nothing fancy, just the car-horn mountain harmonies, loud from years of trying to be heard over the instruments, energetic musicians who had fun and did not always stay in the safe territory of rehearsed notes, and performers who allowed the story to tell itself.
The Keown brothers, Perry and Mitch, found just the right tone as Carter (Perry) and Ralph (Mitch) Stanley, hillbillies with dignity and more talent than they often know what to do with. Mitch’s vocals nailed the sweet spot in bringing Ralph’s tone - which brings a bittersweet sound to even the most upbeat numbers - fully to life. Live theater is not always the best venue for understated performances, but again Mitch brought Ralph to life without characture, much like the man himself.
As Carter, while he had many of the best lines in the play as the more lively of the brothers, never upstaged Mitch or the band.
Another thing which separates the performance of both men in “Man of Constant Sorrow” is their musicianship. Both men do a more than credible job playing their instruments, but it is the effortlessness which gives them an authenticity often missing in staged stories. Both seemed comfortable hands on the frets and that is one of the keys to the warm nature of this play.
And If you like “old-timey” music, mountain and bluegrass, you will find plenty to like. The band is engaging and lively, not textbook perfect, but better. They are a collective character which moves the story along having fun all the time without getting in the way.
Under the direction of Jimmy O. Burdette the story flowed freely, flashing from the 1960s to the 1940s up until 2002. Burdette understands that Southern fried chicken cannot be faked. This play keeps the biscuits and gravy on the plate without resorting to demeaning hillbilly stereotypes.
I’ve seen Ralph Stanley perform, and I have to say last’s night’s performance was every bit as enjoyable as this performance’s namesake.
If you are looking for a history lesson, this is not the place. The brothers rift in early 1950s. for example, in which Carter split the pair and cost the brothers their record deal to join Bill Monroe’s band, were not part of this production.
The Stanleys’ place in history, eclipsed only by the Louvin Brothers and perhaps the Delmore Brothers, did not need a chronological timeline to shine through.
So if you are looking for a reason to spend a night listening to the sounds that changed the face of American music, there is not a better venue in Anderson in the month of February. Even if you have never heard of the Stanley Brothers, I can promise that once you see this performance, they will not longer be rank strangers to you.
Call the Electric City Playhouse for ticket information at 224-4248, or visit their website.