Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Lonesome Melodies by David Johnson – Book Review

In Lonesome Melodies: The Lives and Music of the Stanley Brothers, (University of Mississippi Press, 2013, 304 pages, $50.00, hardcover only) author David W. Johnson has written a focused biography which combines solid scholarship, excellent consideration of the role context plays within the narrative, and living, breathing central characters who emerge as an important musical force with all the personal quirks and flaws of real people. Johnson manages to humanize Carter and Ralph Stanley without ever resorting to speculations about them which cannot be supported by real evidence. In bringing such rigor to a musical biography, he provides a useful and entertaining story.

Carter and Ralph Stanley grew up in the poor, isolated mountains of southwest Virginia, a country dominated by coal, timber, and small subsistence farms. Carter (1925) and Ralph (1927) in the poor, but respectable environment dominated and formed by the effects of the Great Depression. Their father, Lee Stanley, operated a portable sawmill while their mother ran the small farm and raised the children. Lee left the family in 1939 for a younger woman, permanently scarring both boys, while staying in their life, particularly after they began to find success as musicians. Both men saw service in the U.S. Army during World War II, returning home to careers in music, singing and playing old time country music and bluegrass. Their busy performance schedule, frequent recording sessions, and rigorous travel until Carter Stanley's death from acute alcoholism on December 1, 1966 are the content of this book. Their reliance on the songs and sounds of mountain and church music from their earliest experiences give the book texture, while a careful analysis of their careers provides a context of the times for the development of their unique sound. 

Carter Stanley began drinking moonshine liquor, possibly supplied by his childhood friend Carl Hammons, as early as age nine or ten. During the depression cash was short and moonshine, an easily transported and stored use for corn, was a commercial industry with a history dating back to the earliest days of our republic as evidenced by the Liquor Rebellion in western Pennsylvania in 1791, Taxes have always been an issue. Carter seems to have been the more outgoing of the two from their early days of playing music and singing in church. Ralph was always the more sober and restrained, always showing signs of a shy diffidence, where Carter was outgoing, funny, and sociable. They were always surrounded by music, with Carter obtaining an inexpensive guitar and Ralph a cheap, open back banjo. Upon their return from service in 1945, they almost immediately embarked on a career of performing music and churches and schools as well as the early primitive radio stations found in the mountains. Their earliest radio appearances were on stations in Bristol VA/TN and nearby Big Stone Gap. Influenced by A.P. Carter, Wade Mainer, and various brother duos like the Delmore Brothers, Louvin Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, and of course Bill Monroe & the Foggy Mountain Boys, they were soon also recording. The music was taken from songs they heard in church, on the radio, and in live performances. Johnson describes in some detail the copyright issues surrounding musical choice of the day, as the Stanley's engaged in the (then) widespread practice of incorporating both tunes and lyrics from many sources in their own music while claiming ownership of the songs. Carter's ability to obtained a copyright for “Man of Constant Sorrow” in 1951 by creating a unique arrangement of an older song which later benefited his heirs.  Ralph's later material comfort has come through royalties obtained from the widespread popularity after his recording of the song in the film “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou.”

Through most of their careers, the Stanley Brothers along with their band, ever changing in composition as members came, moved on, formed their own bands, or found other full-time work to better support their families, traveled incessantly to small towns where they would present a radio show for little or no pay, promoting their personal appearances in nearby schools, churches, and parking lots. Pay was meager, although an improvement over the much harder life of farm, mill, and mine in their home area. The influence of Wade Mainer and Bill Monroe hastened the transition of the Stanley Brothers sound from old time string band to bluegrass during the late forties and fifties. Carter performed for a period with Bill Monroe as a Blue Grass Boy, and the two had a friendly relationship which allowed the Stanleys to cover much of Monroe's early repertoire. Much of the color and feel for this period was supplied through the author's extensive reliance on interview material from Wade Mainer, Lester Woodie, Bill Clifton, Mike Seeger and (perhaps most important) George Shuffler, who played bass and sang baritone in the trio for much of this period, although he, too, left the band from time-to-time for more lucrative pursuits. The music business appears to have been always something of a struggle for the Stanleys, as they moved frequently to be able to exploit new territory which was less saturated with their music. Eventually, they settled in Live Oak, Florida, because of a sponsorship arrangement with the Jim Walter Corporation, which built shell homes. This arrangement was nowhere near as lucrative as Martha White Flour proved to be for Flatt & Scruggs.

 Photo: Courtesy of Gusto Records

The Stanley Brothers did much of their recording for Starday/King records under the heavy hand of Syd Nathan, who sought to bend their music to his conception of successful country string band music. This relationship was not always easy nor artistically thoughtful. During the period of the fifties, as rock and roll began to emerge, the Stanley Brothers modestly blooming career waned, only to be revived by their discovery by the folk revival and Mike Seeger who, along with Ralph Rinzler, was instrumental in their gaining bookings at the Newport Folk Festival, in California's Ash Grove, and on college campuses.
The embrace of the Stanley's unique, hard sound by the folk community, seeking mountain purity and authentic raw sound, significantly aided the prolongation of their careers. The beginning of the bluegrass festival movement with two early bluegrass single day events and then the first multi-day bluegrass festival at Fincastle in 1965 coalesced an audience for their music. 

David  W. Johnson - Author

The book ends on the somber notes of Carter Stanley's fall into acute alcoholism leading to his eventual death in 1966. Carter's once mellow baritone voice as well as his sunny disposition were gradually submerged by the poison of drink. Because Carter had provided the band with leadership and booking skill, the band lost much of its impetus, which revived after Carter's death in Ralph's determination to continue performing and touring, despite his evident shyness as a solo performer. Ralph is always pictured as being shy around people and deeply insecure about his banjo playing, mostly copied from Snuffy Jenkins and Earl Scruggs as he transitioned from old time into the more ebullient three finger style. Perhaps his insistence on using the honorific title of “Dr.” in front of his name after he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrowgate, TN in 1976 shows this. Ralph Stanley has continued to soldier on as a successful musician for forty-six years since his brother's death.

Lonesome Melodies: The Lives and Music of the Stanley Brothers is published by the University of Mississippi Press (304 pages) as part of its American Made Music series. It will be available in Hard Cover at a price of $50.00 after Christmas. Pre-orders can be made now for delivery upon publication. I understand that a paper bound edition is contemplated in about two years. The book is highly approachable for the general reader, knowledgeable bluegrass fan, or serious student of bluegrass and country music. It is carefully annotated, contains many interviews, lots of photographs,comprehensive notes, discography and an index. It makes an admirable addition to the collections of traditional bluegrass aficionados. I received a digital copy of the book through Kindle from the publisher.