Dierks Bentley has frequently spoken of his enduring love for bluegrass and how it shaped his early days in Nashville, even as his fortunes swelled as a mainstream country performer. On Wednesday night, Bentley put his bluegrass appreciation front and center as the host of an all-star tribute to late bluegrass masters Ralph and Carter Stanley, held at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s CMA Theater.
Timed to coincide with the Hall of Fame’s newly opened exhibit Ralph Stanley: Voice From on High, the event traced the musical legacy of Ralph and brother Carter as singers, songwriters and instrumentalists down through several different strains of modern music. Bentley, for starters, has mainstream country radio hits to his name, but he seemed perfectly happy to watch the Travelin’ McCourys — who appeared on his albums Up on the Ridge and The Mountain — flex their picking muscles between his verses. “I’m a fan first and foremost of these guys,” he noted at one point in the evening.
That influence also extends to present-day bluegrass, where husband and spouse Justin Moses and Sierra Hull showed a mastery of instrumental ability and haunting vocal arrangements with a chilling version of “O Death.” Ralph Stanley’s son, Ralph Stanley II, brought out the Clinch Mountain Boys for an a cappella rendition of “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” and a lively romp through “Katy Daley.” The Gibson Brothers were also on hand, with siblings Leigh and Eric capturing the high-lonesome sound of the Stanleys’ harmonies on “I Just Think I’ll Go Away.”
Black Keys singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach, who produced the Gibson Brothers’ forthcoming album Mockingbird, was also present. “Some of the first songs I ever saw played on a guitar were Stanley Brothers songs,” he noted. Auerbach’s uncle Jimmy was with him, strumming and singing high harmonies on a couple songs, including a keening take on “Could You Love Me One More Time.”
Americana was also represented, as Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch came out to sing “Little Glass of Wine” and “Take Your Shoes Off, Moses.” “It is fair to say I would not be doing what I do were it not for the Stanley Brothers,” said Welch.
The brief evening drew to a close with two more songs led by Bentley, who described the process of learning and discovery that led him from Ricky Skaggs to the Stanley Brothers as he sang “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown.” When the musicians playing with him asked to bump “How Mountain Girls Can Love” up a whole step to the key of A, Bentley showed his deference for their skill, joking, “They’re professional bluegrass musicians. They’re committed to the cause.”
The night concluded with an ensemble performance of the gospel song “Angel Band,” with performers representing rock, country, bluegrass, Americana and beyond — a diverse mixture of sounds with at least one common ancestor.