The Tiny Desk Concert series almost always brings out the lighter side of both the artists who perform and the staff of NPR Music. When Tom Jones or the band Dr. Dog shows up, for example, it can feel like a child's birthday party or a field day from school, with lots of joking from a bunch of people glad to have a break from their normal routine. But when Dr. Ralph Stanley strolled in to give this Tiny Desk Concert, the office fell silent with the kind of reverence appropriate for a living legend.
That's not to say that Stanley was humorless. Standing at Bob Boilen's desk, in front of one of the largest crowds we've had at a Tiny Desk show, he held up a copy of the new autobiography he's been promoting, Man of Constant Sorrow, and told the audience, "I'd like to sell around a thousand of them today, here." When Bob asked if the book had every detail of the singer's life, Stanley said, "I didn't leave out a thing. And may have added some stuff." Later, when he sang an abbreviated version of "Amazing Grace," he told the audience, "I only know but the one verse," grossly understating his position as the dean of bluegrass and old-time gospel music. But, as he writes in his new book, "I'm just an old hillbilly, and proud of it, too. Plain as an old shoe."
Ralph Stanley's Tiny Desk set was shorter than most, but deeply moving. He didn't play his trademark clawhammer banjo, and no one accompanied him as he sang three songs a cappella: "Gloryland," "Turn Back, Turn Back" and "Amazing Grace."