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Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times Hardcover – October 15, 2009
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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.)
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"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 l --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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. "This music isn't about the notes you play, but the emotions you have," he says. That kind of sums it up.
I loved this book, but set it down with sadness. No one plows behind a mule any more. Everybody watches the same awful television shows. Kids don't grow up like we did, working the fields, swimming in the creek, coming in at noon to listen to hillbilly music on the radio. It's a time that's gone and won't come back. The musicians who came off those mountain farms soon will soon be gone too.
But the music remains, and country roads, and those misted hills of home.
Ken Byerly, author of Mountain Girl and other books.