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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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"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."
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In the Prologue page 2, paragraph 6, Mr. Stanley begins his self-serving, exaggerated report of himself by stating he has an old-time mountain voice. I agree, and he still has it. However, I suspect A Cappella shape-note singing as a youngster in the mountains, usually in churches or brush arbors, still affects the sound of his voice, which has very little musical quality, and is better described as being somewhere between yelling and talking. Yelling and talking is how he rendered "O Death" in the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou?" Yet Mr. Stanley lays claim to a great singing voice because the "Grand Ole Opry" recognized he had a great singing voice and inducted him as a member on January 15, 2000. Surprisingly, it only took "The Opry" approximately fifty-five years to come to their senses and recognize what a great singing voice he has. The sad fact is "The Opry" knew exactly what it was doing and took advantage of the popularity of "O Death" in the movie to bring more attention to "The Opry", and not because of the great singing voice of Mr. Stanley. The "great singing voice" of "The Stanley Brothers" died in 1966. Since then, Mr. Stanley has propped up his music career with the fan's memory of the great voice and lyrics of his brother (Carter), and Mr. Stanley has surrounded himself with world-class musicians and back-up voices in order to stay afloat in the music industry. There is nothing new about surrounding yourself with great talent; the entire music industry does it. Sometimes great musicians and back-up voices surround a great singing voice to produce great sounds. In Mr. Stanley's case great musicians and back-up voices surround a mediocre voice, which still produces what fans of "The Stanley Brothers" want to hear. The idea that the Stanleys are from the harsh environment of the old-time mountains, singing lyrics that describe that life, backed-up with the sound of instruments and voices reminiscent of that age, is more palatable than a lead voice that is simply not that good.
In the Prologue, page 4, paragraph 5, Mr. Stanley states, "I was in the shadow of my big brother" and that "I was a real shy, bashful boy" - "backwards". Mr Stanley is still in the shadow of Carter Stanley, and is still "backwards".
In the Prologue, page 5, paragraph 2, Mr. Stanley states his father recognized "I had something God-Given and unique", and asked him to "line out" the song. It is more probable his father knew he was backwards and shy, and used the tactic in an attempt to bring him out of his shell. It had nothing to do with a backwards, backwoods, eight-year-old boy having a great singing voice.
In the Prologue, page 6, paragraph 2, Mr. Stanley states, "I knew then I had something special that nobody else had, not even Carter". It is unlikely an eight-year-old boy would have a thought that "he had something special", but would likely have a thought that he had done something better than his brother could have done it, even though he had not, has not, cannot today, and will never do it better than Carter Stanley.
In the Prologue, page 6, paragraph 5, Mr. Stanley states that he mourns out songs. This is another way of saying that he yells and talks them out.
In the Prologue, page 8, paragraph 3, Mr. Stanley relates the story of how his brother Carter had praised his (Ralph's) singing voice to George Shuffler after he had sung "Man of Constant Sorrow". In the movie, "O Brother Where Art Thou", Mr. Stanley yells and talks his rendition of "O Death", while a great voice (Dan Tyminski) renders "Man of Constant Sorrow". Once again, we see Mr. Stanley laying claim to something that exists only in his own mind.
In the Prologue, page 13, paragraph 5, Mr. Stanley (speaking of writers) states, "they played me pretty dumb in that play, made me more backwards than I ever was". Maybe they did. However, Mr. Stanley is still as backwards and as backwoods as he was at birth, and it is unlikely that will change.
In the Prologue, page 14, paragraph 1, Mr. Stanley states, "I know correct and proper English just fine, but I don't use it because that's not the way I was raised". This statement is a brag, an exaggeration, and simply a lie. Mr. Stanley is as backwoods, backwards, and mostly as uneducated as the day he finished high school. If he could even get close to proper English and proper grammar, it would be impossible for him to hide it in his normal speech.
In the Prologue page 15, paragraph 3, Mr. Stanley states, "I can count on one hand the people I grew up with from around these parts who are still living. We were the last generation from these mountains to live from the earth. It was a hard life and there was a lot of suffering. But the music we made couldn't have come from any other place or time. The suffering was part of what made the music strong, and I reckon that's why it's lasted. It won't be long before we're all of us gone. I hope this book leaves behind something worthwhile to remember us by". This may be the best paragraph in the entire book, and its sentiment is what the book should have reflected. Instead, the book is a massive jumble of brags, exaggeration, and self-serving 'eye-itis'.
Mr. Stanley begins chapter one by denying his family genealogy is important to him and the furthest thing from his mind, but it is clear he yearns to be descended from royalty so he can brag and exaggerate about that too. He then proceeds to brag and exaggerate on a list of "bests" in his early life, which was, according to him, just short of destitution, while his father drove a brand new car. He simultaneously describes the terrible hardships in his life, giving the reader cause to wonder where the truth in any of it lies.
The rest of the book is more of the same bragging and exaggeration as in the Prologue, which includes the brag that while in the United Sates Army the Chain of Command wanted him to stay in and become an officer. Fortunately, for the rest of the free world, even the United States Army has standards, which exclude backwards, backwoods, uneducated men and women from becoming members of the Officer's Corps.
Intermixed with all the bragging, exaggeration, and self-serving rhetoric is the story of Ralph Stanley. Excluding a successful music career, it is a story that fits almost anyone who was 'borned' in or near the mountains of Southern Appalachia and the Blue Ridge, during the same period as Mr. Stanley. If you are a Ralph Stanley fan, you will want to read this book, in spite of this review, just to prove that I am wrong. Unfortunately, what I have said is fact, and it reflects what a truly small man Mr. Stanley is.
Thomas E. Murphy
'Borned' in Dacusville, SC, January 11, 1949
Stanley was born in 1927 in the Clinch mountains of southwestern Virginia and he still lives very near the old home place where he grew up with his older brother Carter. Carter and Ralph were still teenagers when they began performing as the Stanley Brothers and, for the rest of their lives, the brothers would depend on music to provide their living, difficult as that would often prove to be (think about the impact of Elvis Presley). Carter would be gone much too soon, dead by age 42 primarily because of an inability to control his alcohol consumption, but Ralph would find new lead singers to keep the music of the Stanley Brothers alive to the present day.
First to replace Carter was18-year-old Larry Sparks, but Sparks would be followed over the years by others, including an even younger Keith Whitley who joined the Clinch Mountain Boys with his singing buddy Ricky Skaggs. As Stanley recounts, Whitley would move on to a successful stint with J.D. Crowe before himself dying of alcohol poisoning when just on the verge of a career-making mainstream breakthrough.
"Man of Constant Sorrow" includes stories about many of the men that have been members of the Clinch Mountain Boys for the past six decades. Stanley shares both the good and the bad about his life and he does the same for the men with whom he worked all those years, even to providing details (as he understands them) of the murder of Roy Lee Centers and the legal system that let off his killer with the lightest of sentences imaginable. Stanley speaks often of losing band members to death or illness and addresses how difficult it was for him to fire various Clinch Mountain Boys over the years.
The beauty of "Man of Constant Sorrow" is that it is told in Ralph Stanley's voice, mountain dialect and spelling, included. The voice is so accurate (and, at times so rambling) that one has to believe that Dr. Ralph's contribution to the book was largely made via a recording device into which he spoke his memories and that Eddie Dean's job was to put everything in the proper order for a book presentation.
This stream-of-consciousness approach also contributes to an unpleasant surprise or two for those of us who know Ralph Stanley only through his onstage persona. Stanley, it seems, has a tendency to give praise to others with one hand while, with the other, explaining that he does it better than they ever did (be "it" music or some standard of behavior), and a willingness to tell degrading stories about the people he does not like or approve of, even if they are long dead. I was particularly struck by the paragraphs devoted to how delightful if was for the band to have a dim-witted picker on the road with them, someone at whom the rest of the band could always laugh to relieve the tension and fatigue of the road. This light streak of cruelty and lack of empathy in some of Stanley's stories truly surprises me and exposes an inability to see himself through the eyes of others.
"Man of Constant Sorrow suffers," too, from the glaring gaps left in its chronology. Very little is said about Carter Stanley's children and how they survived after Carter's death despite the fact that one of them, Jeanie, is herself an excellent bluegrass singer. There is also the matter of Ralph own first marriage, to which I can find only one quick reference where Stanley discusses his mother's reaction to his surprise marriage to Jimmie: "My first marriage didn't really count in her book. And not in mine, neither. I had to go through the bad marriage to be ready for a woman like Jimmie, I reckon." To those unaware of Stanley's first marriage, this is the equivalent of a neck-twisting double-take, and I still wonder where in his long story this failed marriage fits. Lastly, there is little mention of Ralph's own children, despite the fact that Ralph Stanley II was a Clinch Mountain Boy for about 20 years and that one grandson is a current member of the band.
Despite the gaps in the book, and, in my personal opinion , some of what Dr. Ralph reveals about his nature, "Man of Constant Sorrow" is a worthy addition to country music history and it deserves a wide audience. It is, after all, Ralph Stanley's story - and he gets to decide what he wants to share and what he wants to reveal about himself in the process.