In honor of Rhythm and Roots, we are re-posting a review by Jeanne first run in February, 2010.
region has long been known for the wealth of music nurtured on the
mountainsides and up in the hollers. Traditional music brought over by
European immigrants melded with elements from Native American and
African American music to produce a unique sound. “Pop” Stoneman is
credited with extolling the virtues of the region’s music to Ralph Peer,
encouraging him to come here to record. Peer soon found that Pop
hadn’t exaggerated: there was a lot of good music in these hills. At
about the same time that Peer was making his recordings, a second son
was born to Lee and Lucy Smith Stanley at their home in Big Spraddle,
Virginia. The baby was named Ralph, and he and his older brother Carter
would be steeped in mountain music from birth.
is the start of the long awaited autobiography of Ralph Stanley,
traditional music icon and legend. The story is told as if you’re just
sitting on the front porch, passing the time as Dr. Ralph reminisces:
he tells us that he knows proper English, but he chooses to tell his
story in the phrases and terms of home. I was reminded of times when,
as a child, I’d hear the adults laugh about long-ago shenanigans
involving outhouses or stray cows, sing bits of old ballads or hymns,
pass along local lore and gossip, and speak of ghosts and faith
healings and the proper way to milk a cow. Dr. Ralph would be right at
home with that group, though he’s realizes that he’s speaking to a wider
audience, ones who may not know , for example, the difference between
Primitive Baptists and Old Regular Baptists. He explains mountain
customs, history and traditions, while being neither ashamed nor
condescending. He does an excellent job of describing a way of life
without electricity, television and indoor plumbing.
much of the book is devoted to the music, starting with the brothers’
early experiences in singing gospel in churches and at community
gatherings such as pie suppers. Then came the gig on “Farm and Fun
Time” on WCYB where the Stanley Brothers first made an impression on the
region. Many of their songs became country and bluegrass standards.
Carter’s easy way of working a crowd, along with his fine singing voice
and gift for songwriting made him the natural leader of the group, while
Ralph was shy and generally deferred to his older brother. Many
believed that the “Stanley sound” would end when Carter died. It was up
to Ralph to not only prove the naysayers wrong, but to determine a new
course for his music, going back to “old time” mountain music rather
than pure bluegrass.
Earning a living through music is
rarely easy and Dr. Ralph doesn’t glamorize life on the road, with seedy
bars, jealous musicians, and fleabag hotels. While there are humorous
incidents, there are as many that are somber: Lee Stanley’s deserting
the family when the boys were young, Carter’s early death, and the
murder of a band member.
Although Dr. Ralph—and yes,
the book does explain how he received that title—has been known as a man
of few words, he does a fine job of telling his own story without
skimping or whitewashing. Several reviewers have expressed surprise at
how candid he is; he does have a few bones to pick (he didn’t care for
the way he was portrayed in a play, for instance) and he isn’t shy about
how he views his place in traditional music, but the overall tone isn’t
self-serving. He does a bit of name-dropping (A. P. Carter, Bill
Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs, etc. )but not
nearly as much as he could have. He is generous in his praise of some
musicians who really haven’t gotten their due, giving names to folk
rarely credited in mainstream music history. In a few places he seems
downright circumspect. He is honest about the toll the years have taken
on his voice, but feels that the true emotion gathered from life
This is more than just a story
of one man: it’s the story of a region and a time long past. Co-author
Dean, a veteran writer for publications such as Spin magazine, has done a
wonderful job of telling the story while keeping to the background.
The book sounds as if it came straight from Dr. Ralph’s lips, without
prompting or rewrites.
Several reviewers wished for
more photos. I second that, and will add that an index would have been a
plus, even if it did take away from the homespun feel.
picked this book up thinking that it would be another standard
celebrity biography, perhaps with a slab of cornpone on the side. I
hoped there would be some mentions of this area among the name-dropping,
but I wasn’t exactly holding my breath. Instead I found a book to
which I could relate and one that I’ll be recommending to anyone who
wants to know about Appalachian life and who enjoys a good, well-told
story—even if it’s someone who covers his ears when he hears a banjo
being played. I wouldn’t be surprised if Man of Constant Sorrow
becomes a standard text in courses on Appalachian history and culture,
but I hope it’ll continue to be read just for the sheer pleasure of
hearing such an original and authentic voice.