Monday, January 18, 2010

Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times

When it comes to country music history, Ralph Stanley has pretty much seen it all. Now, at age 82, he has partnered with author Eddie Dean to share some of that with the rest of us. The book they co-authored, Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times, will, of course be especially appreciated by bluegrass fans, Stanley Brothers fans, and fans of the work Ralph has done since Carter’s death on December 1, 1966. Others, even those that are not fans of Stanley or of bluegrass music, will find the book to be a remarkable snapshot of a pivotal period in American music history, a time during which musicians like the Stanley Brothers earned their livings through live radio shows, relatively primitive recordings, and driving countless miles from one paying gig to the next.

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.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. I'm really interested -- flaws and all.

    I was surprised that Stanley is only 82 -- for some reason, I had guessed him off in his 90s!

  2. I do think you'd enjoy this book. There is just so much history in this man's head that it's amazing. I've only seen him live one time but I'm hoping to catch him again sometime before he finally retires.