LAGUNA NIGUEL — Ricky Skaggs predicted recently that the next vein of country music to yield pay dirt well may be acoustic bluegrass, and if he's right, there's no one--except maybe Bill Monroe himself--more qualified to cash in than bluegrass veterans Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys.
Of course, if 65-year-old Stanley did suddenly enter the ranks of Next Big Things, aficionados would miss out on cozy performances like the one he gave Monday in the living-room-like atmosphere of Shade Tree Stringed Instruments.
If there's one thing Stanley's early, nearly two-hour set reinforced, it's that the value of music is in no way proportional to the numbers of teeming millions who may or may not hear it. In fact, the essential beauty of bluegrass--the delicately intertwined voices, the light instrumental interplay--easily could get trampled in arena settings.
The sentiments in most of Stanley's songs, too, seem tailored for intimate gatherings: a lover's pledge of eternal faithfulness, another's desolation at being passed over, the heartbreak of seeing one's parents delivered to the graveyard.
Stanley and his four cohorts captured such fundamental joys and sorrows in ways that were neither cloying nor insensitive. In the ebullient, up-tempo opening number "Long Gone," the band flew across the musical landscape like Tom Swift's car, crossing all sorts of terrain on a cushion of air.
Later, banjo-picker Stanley, lead singer Ernie Thacker and bassist Jack Cook set their instruments aside for a couple of a cappella gospel numbers graced by harmonies straight from Cloud Nine. Fiddler and group clown Curly Ray Cline, jolly as ever at age 79, brought things back to the more temporal side of life with the exuberant "Boar Hog," during which he got the mostly yuppie audience to join in a hearty hog-call-and-response session.
To the lovelorn lament "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?," lead guitarist Junior Blankenship added an unusual fourth vocal line, an ominous baritone response of ". . . when I'm gone" to the "will you miss me?" call posed by the vocal trio of Stanley, Thacker and Cook.
The band's lead singer for the last two years, Thacker has a less distinctive voice than some of his predecessors, who have included Skaggs, Keith Whitley and, originally, Ralph's brother Carter, who died in 1966. By default, this focused attention on Stanley's slightly raspy but sweet, high harmonies. The group got a more colorful lead vocal out of a guest singer who goes by the name of Hook and Beans, even though his maple-thick Appalachian drawl made the one song he sang--"Single Girl"--all but intelligible.
For his sprightly banjo work, Stanley relied mostly on the Earl Scruggs three-finger picking style. But he also took time to demonstrate the more primitive "claw-hammer" approach, alternately bouncing his thumb on the drone string while both plucking and strumming the others with fingers fused together as if in a claw. He said he'd learned this from his mother when he was 11.
Another highlight was "Old Man Death," a song Stanley wrote last year in the midst of the Persian Gulf War, a defiant, apolitical warning to the Grim Reaper that "I'll go out kickin' when it comes my time."
Whether bluegrass ever sees the popular breakthrough that Skaggs envisions, it was clear Monday that Stanley is perfectly happy to keep on kickin' just as long as he can keep on pickin'.