Monday, 4 March 2013

Long Overdue: A Stanley Brothers Biography


This first-ever Stanley Brothers biography Lonesome Melodies: The Lives And Music Of The Stanley Brothers [released February 1, 2013] documents the careers and personal lives of two true bluegrass legends, Carter and Ralph Stanley.

Author David W. Johnson has written a compelling story while remaining historically accurate, respectful and honest. It is a sensitive portrayal of two rather diverse personalities as they struggled to make a living together with their mountain music -- a music that told stories of their family, neighbors, and all descendants who came before them. Those of us who take this 304 page journey (including anyone who may have had a personal relationship with Carter and Ralph Stanley) perhaps will have a better understanding of these men and their music.

Brothers Carter and Ralph managed to take their music to the major cities of the USA from their home place deep in the Clinch Mountains of Virginia. They performed in local school houses, in radio stations, college campuses, the infamous Newport Folk Festival, national television and toured in Europe in 1966. The Stanley Brothers and The Clinch Mountain Boys were one of the most accomplished bands in country, bluegrass and mountain music. The Stanleys played a major role in the development of the early history of American music.
David Johnson’s extensive research while living near the Stanley's home territory in Virginia included personal visits with Ralph Stanley. He also spent countless hours with the two brothers' family members, childhood schoolmates, neighbors, life-long friends and band members. Some of the many people who shared their personal memories of Carter and Ralph were Bill Clifton, George Shuffler, Larry Sparks, and the late Wade Mainer.

George Shuffler, Carter & Ralph Stanley 1964
The journey throughout this book is not only a personal view of the Stanley Brothers’ world, but an occasional study of local histories and personalities.

The author also inserts a fair bit of regional history to help us better understand the strength in character of Carter and Ralph Stanley. A character that perhaps prepared them for the path they would take in their musical quest.

Additional subjects covered include song collecting in the mountain country, the earliest music festivals, the prominent folk and bluegrass artists of the period and more. We are also treated to an insider’s view of the country music business during the late 1940s through 1960s.

There is detailed background of well known mountain ballads. We are treated to several ‘behind the scene’ looks at day-to-day life on road for a first generation bluegrass musician. We learn about the politics of competing with the relatively few bands in those formative years of bluegrass music. We learn of the importance of radio appearances, the politics of radio and recording companies, the impossible task of finding sponsors, the complications involved in being cast members of major venues such as the Louisiana Hayride.

Another welcomed subject covered in the book is a brief history of the earliest radio and recording business in Bristol, VirginiaTennessee (the town is divided down the center of Main Street by the Virginia and Tennessee state lines). Particularly interesting is the list of old-time mountain musicians who recorded 78 rpm records prior to the well documented “Bristol Sessions” with The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers in 1927.

Telling the personal story of Carter and Ralph Stanley could not have been an easy task. Carter, the eldest of the two brothers, died early in his life at age 41 (just 9 months after their tour of Europe in 1966). Until now friends and family were very protective of Carter Stanley and would not talk about his final months of life. His was a sorrowful and painful end due to complications from acute alcoholism. However Johnson relates this integral part of the Stanley Brothers’ saga with great respect and sympathy for the people involved.
The Ash Grove in Hollywood, California 1962
This inaugural study of The Stanley Brothers is highly recommended to anyone who enjoys American music: The general reader, knowledgeable country-bluegrass-mountain music fan, music student or scholar. With photographs, interviews, encyclopedic notes, Stanley Brothers discography + index.

About the author:  David W. Johnson is an independent scholar who has performed and written about traditional music for 50 years. His article on The Carter Family was awarded Da Capo ‘Best Music Writing 2004’. He lives in Stratham, New Hampshire, USA.

University Press of Mississippi
304 pages / 6 x 9 inches / 31 black & white photos
Suggested retail price: $50 USD *

* In Europe:  40,13 (free shipping)
E-book format is also available  978-1-61703-647-7