Synopses & Reviews
A legend looks back on his six decades in music.
Ralph Stanley was born in 1927 in a corner of Virginia known as Big Spraddle Creek, a place where music echoed from the ridge tops, was belted out by workers in the fields, and resonated in the one-room country church where Ralph first found his voice. For his eleventh birthday, Ralph was given five dollars, and had to chose between buying a sow or a banjo. He chose the banjo, which his mother taught him to play in the clawhammer style. In 1946, he combined his banjo with his brother Carter's guitar, and the two blended their voices into one as the Stanley Brothers. For twenty years the Stanleys chased the dream through good times and hard times, until the hard times caught up to Carter and he succumbed to liver disease at age 41. In the four decades since his brother's passing, Ralph has brought his music from the hills and hollows of southwest Virginia to the wide world.
Now in his eighties and still touring, Ralph has at last grown into his voice and is ready to tell his story. In Man of Constant Sorrow, Ralph looks back on his career in what most call bluegrass but what he prefers to call "old time mountain music." He recounts the creation of hundreds of classic tracks, including "White Dove," "Rank Stranger," and his signature song, "Man of Constant Sorrow." He tells tales from a life spent on road with his band the Clinch Mountain Boys, explains his distinctive "Stanley style" of banjo-playing, crosses paths with everyone from Bill Monroe to Bob Dylan, and reflects on his late-career resurgence sparked by an unlikely Grammy win in 2002 for his song "O Death." He also raises a dirge for Appalachia, his mountain home that is quickly disappearing.
Harmonized with equal measures of tragedy and triumph, Man of Constant Sorrow is the stirring testament of a giant of American music.
"Stanley's life spans the history of recorded bluegrass and country music, but his high, lonesome voice encompasses human suffering throughout time. Born in 1927, Stanley and his brother and first singing partner, Carter, grew up in the mountains of southwestern Virginia where Stanley learned old-time music in a Primitive Baptist church and from his mother, who picked the banjo clawhammer style. As a young man he often doubted his future as a musician, farming and working briefly in a sawmill, before committing himself to the music business. He stuck with it after Carter's alcohol-accelerated death in 1966 even though his career did not prove lucrative until very late in life when he was featured on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. He won the 2001 Grammy for best male country vocal performance, besting the likes of young commercial country star Tim McGraw, of whom Stanley writes, '[W]ouldn't know a real country song if it kicked him in the ass.' Stanley's plainspoken narrative is told in a rural diction as though he were sitting in the front seat of an old Ford headed down the mountain for his next show. His story is a comprehensive and endearing cornucopia of authentic mountain music, place, family, friends, rivals, faith, love, life, death and the road." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"The life chronicled in this autobiography is right out of Southern Gothic lit... The level of detail renders Stanley's tales as captivating as his music."
"A delightful, outspoken surprise... An often tart yet affecting music memoir."
-Kirkus (starred review)
"After all these years [Stanley's] tongue is still sharp."
-Wall Street Journal
"[Man of Constant Sorrow] is a lot like the man himself: warm, folksy, down to earth, plainspoken, a little blunt and prickly at times."
-New York Times
"No less than the oral history of a quintessentially American music scene."
"This late-in-life memoir is a classic- remarkably frank, detailed, revealing, and from time to time it rises to the level of plainspoken poetry. The master of old time singing and clawhammer banjo pulls no punches as he recalls his rural Virginia mountain boyhood, the Stanleys' slow rise to success, his career restart after his alcoholic brother's death in 1966, and musicians he played with, from Bill Monroe to Keith Whitley and even Bob Dylan. He settles a few scores, shares his inner thoughts on matters social, political and spiritual, and tells his tale in a flowing, engaging style that's no doubt also a credit to Virginia journalist Dean."
-American Songwriter (five stars)
"In the prologue to Man of Constant Sorrow Ralph Stanley writes: 'I've always done my best to honor what God gave me. I've never tried to put any airs on it. I sing it the way I feel it, just the way it comes out.' With music writer Eddie Dean, he relates his life in the same speaking voice - honestly and with extraordinary detail."
"As fascinating as Stanley's personal revelations are, this book's greatest value lies in his documentary-like descriptions of the hardships rural musicians faced in the 1940s and '50s-crowded cars, band rivalries, long and dangerous roads and hand-to-mouth living."
"Man of Constant Sorrow brims with Stanley's homespun wit as he recalls vivid tales of the church and sawmills of his youth, which served as the wellsprings for the Stanley brothers' halting, soulful music; their days with King Records, when they were label-mates with soul legend James Brown; and the personal struggles Stanley faced after his brother's alcohol-related death."
"With music journalist Dean's help, Stanley has put his speech on paper. Every word about his hardscrabble upbringing, how Carter and he built livings in music, his perseverance after Carter's untimely death in 1966, the many personalities he has worked with and admired, and much more, is vibrant with it. Perhaps in the future this lovely book will occupy a position in American autobiography like that of Huckleberry Finn among American novels, as the great vernacular example of its kind."
-Booklist (starred review)
"Man of Constant Sorrow is an invaluable book...You've never heard anything like this story, but if you care anything about great American voices, at the microphone or on the page, you won't miss it."
A giant of American music opens the book on his wrenching professional and personal journeys, paying tribute to the vanishing Appalachian culture that gave him his voice.
He was there at the beginning of bluegrass. Yet his music, forged in the remote hills and hollows of Southwest Virginia, has even deeper roots. In Man of Constant Sorrow, Dr. Ralph Stanley gives a surprisingly candid look back on his long and incredible career as the patriarch of old-time mountain music.
Marked by Dr. Ralph Stanley?s banjo picking, his brother Carter?s guitar playing, and their haunting and distinctive harmonies, the Stanley Brothers began their career in 1946 and blessed the world of bluegrass with hundreds of classic songs, including ?White Dove,? ?Rank Stranger,? and what has become Dr. Ralph?s signature song, ?Man of Constant Sorrow.? Carter died in 1966 after years of alcohol abuse, but Dr. Ralph Stanley carried on and is still at the top of his game, playing to audiences across the country today at age eighty-one. Rarely giving interviews, he now grants fans the book they have been waiting for, filled with frank recollections, from his boyhood of dire poverty in the Appalachian coalfields to his early musical success with his brother, to years of hard traveling on the road with the Clinch Mountain Boys, to the recent, jubilant revival of a sound he helped create.
The story of how a musical art now popular around the world was crafted by two brothers from a dying mountain culture, Man of Constant Sorrow captures a life harmonized with equal measures of tragedy and triumph.
About the Author
DR. Ralph Stanley
has been performing professionally for more than sixty years. He was awarded a Grammy in 2002 for his song O Death, featured on the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? In 2006, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
Eddie Dean is a veteran music journalist who has written for Spin, the Washington City Paper, and Talk magazine, among other publications. Both authors are natives of Virginia.