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Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times Hardcover – October 15, 2009

4.4 out of 5 stars 60 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"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."
-Rolling Stone

"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."
-Mother Jones

"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."
-Austin Chronicle

"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."
-American Way

"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."

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Gotham (October 15, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1592404251
  • ISBN-13: 978-1592404254
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.5 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #164,625 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Peter Wernick on December 27, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Ralph Stanley's way of speaking is in itself a throwback to an earlier time in a relatively isolated mountain
region of the South. And on top of that, even as a child, people said he was the boy with the 100 year old voice.
In his own words, with good shaping and organizing by Eddie Dean, he tells of his early life, his start in the music
business and many details of all the miles traveled and the people along the way. While he repeatedly says he doesn't like
to talk much, he talks plenty in this book, and in some ways I wish it could have been longer, since there's a lot to
tell in a life as long and far reaching as his has been.

One thing that makes it especially interesting is a look into Ralph's ways as a leader, as a family man, and as a man
who's sometimes called on to make moral judgements. Not everything he says or thinks fits into neat categories, and so
there are surprises and plenty of things to make you think.

If you're a fan of his music as I have been, this book provides a great complement to the songs and sounds. If you're not,
this book will provide a great entry point.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
With a minimum of cold and detached big city editing, this book reads like Dr. Stanley is talking to me as we sit on the front porch of his old home place. He pulls no punches in tellin' it like it was and is. I ride with him over the miles and enjoy hearing the rough life of a mountain musician/promoter/employer and counseling father to the young and sometimes, even older band members.
His philosophy, expressions, figures of speech, and music all blend together with his mother's care, the mountains, valleys, creeks, mine workers and country churches of WVA to give the reader an assurance of Dr. Ralph Stanley's unwavering faith, talent of a unique master musician, and desire to be a friend of all good men. The book is bold, interesting, fresh, and a dadburned good read!
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I grew up on a farm in North Carolina, before I became a newspaper reporter and then a stockbroker, and in reading this book it seemed like I underlined something on every page. Things like: "Two Stanley brothers in front, three Clinch Mountain boys in back, and just enough gasoline for a round trip: that's how we made the miles in the early days."

Ralph and Carter Stanley came down from the farm on Smith's Ridge in the deep, rolling hills of old Virginia and started on Farm and Fun Time on live radio back in the 1940's. Elvis came along in the 1950s, and television. A lot of things changed. The Stanley Brothers music stayed the same.

"I can't read a note of music and neither could Carter," Ralph says in this book. "We always played by ear, same as everybody did in the mountains...Carter was such a wonderful and talented MC, he could please any kind of crowd...He was so used to speaking off the cuff. He never planned what he was going to say, just like we never planned our sets. We sung whatever we felt at the moment and whatever requests we got from the audience."

But Carter took to drinking. "All I can tell you is over the years, it (alcohol) just kept tighening the grip on him, and there wasn't nothing I could do to unloose that grip." Carter died in 1966. Ralph carried on. A lot of musicians passed through his band. George Shuffler, Ralph writes, became like a third Stanley brother. Curley Ray Cline "could have more fun drinking a cup of coffee than a lot of people could have in a month."

I saw Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys perform when Carter was still alive and I've seen them many times since. Ralph's singing, that high, cracked voice, stays the same.
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Format: Hardcover
I'm a Stanley fan of about 25 years. This book is appropriate to the Ralph Stanley of 2009, in his third career - as the grand old man of bluegrass. I must confess he lost me about 8 years ago when his show became more of a circus than anything else. I was lucky enough to see him when he still played the banjo, Curly Ray on fiddle and the band just driving the p*ss out of the music. Somehow, something vital has gone. Ralph's very old and you can't expect him to do it like he always did but the diehard mountain man has been replaced by someone who's playing the game - much the same qualities as he puts down in others in this book. I used to RUN down to the stage on Smith Ridge to see him play, to see something REAL. A commodity fast becoming an impossibility to find, especially in entertainment. What we get now is a show. I'm a musician and I understand the craft, but somehow he always managed to transcend mere performance. This book strikes me as something similar. Does Ralph really have that much respect for Bob Dylan? Ralph II is on film stating that Ralph didn't know who Dylan was before he recorded with him. I love that notion, true or not. Does he really think that the truly awful version of Lonesome River on Clinch Mountain Country was 'one of the best versions' or is he playing the showbiz game? There was a mountain code that I admired in Ralph and others, which he commends in Pee Wee Lambert in this book - the golden rule. Don't speak ill of people, especially not to the press. I was quite taken aback by his 2 pages slandering John Duffey and how he couldn't cut the high baritone on the (amazing) version of Lonesome River recorded in the 70s. This remains one of the most powerful vocal performances (by all concerned)that I have ever heard.Read more ›
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