When fans, enthusiasts and historians retrace the history of bluegrass music, it’s often the Stanley Brothers or Ralph Stanley himself that are positioned so prominently. Carter Stanley, Ralph’s older sibling and the other half of the Stanley Brothers pairing, is often overlooked, one reason his life turned out so tragically.
Educator and historian Gary Reid has made it his mission to give Carter the recognition that often eluded him in the past. His traveling one man show, A Life of Sorrow: The Life and Times of Carter Stanley, has found him venturing out of his native Virginia and performing nearly 100 shows in 16 states and three Canadian provinces, while sharing Carter’s story with his audiences through drama, music, and dissertation. It finds Reid bringing Stanley to life, offering a narrative about a career fraught with frustration, disappointment and lost opportunity. Although plagued by alcoholism and commercial failure, Stanley still emerges as a seminal figure who helped shape the course of modern bluegrass music for decades to come.
Reid had initially developed an interest in the music of the Stanley Brothers in 1973, a fascination that led him to found a bluegrass label he called Copper Creek Records. He stayed at the helm of the company for 35 years, but eventually decided he wanted to do something more. The fact that he lives in Roanoke, Virginia, close to the Stanley Brothers’s environs in Clinch Mountain, aided in that effort. He began making regular trip to Ralph Stanley’s festival in 1975, and it was there that he had opportunity to speak with the people who knew the brothers firsthand.
“I got the first inklings for doing my Carter Stanley program back in 2008,” Reid explains. “There is a greenway located near our home where I would walk the dog every day. Oftentimes, the dog and I would be the only ones out for fresh air and sunshine. In the solitude of our environment, I would sometimes mimic dialogue from various live recordings of vintage bluegrass concerts that I have collected over the years. Not only was Carter Stanley a gifted singer and composer, he was a very personable master of ceremonies. To make his songs relatable to his audience, he frequently introduced them with interesting tidbits… historical trivia. I found myself reciting these passages on our walks.”
Reid says that it was these casual interludes that eventually gave him the idea of incorporating them into some sort of presentation. He said that theater had never really interested him. “If you had said, ‘Let’s go see a play,’ I’d have said you were crazy,” he recalls. Nevertheless, the idea of creating something from these snippets of dialogue intrigued him in such a strong way that he found it hard to let them go. In late 2008, he sent an email to the acting department head at the local community college asking his advice on whether there might be an acting class he could suggest as a good fit, or perhaps simply a course in public speaking that might be an appropriate choice.
Ultimately, The professor suggested that his own class would be the most ideal choice for preparing Reid for the idea he had in mind.
“In January 2009, I entered my first semester of acting at Virginia Western Community College,” Reid recalls. “I was 53 at the time. Most of the students were recent high school graduates. One of our first exercises was to get up in front of the class to tell a little bit about ourselves. I was a nervous wreck… rocking back and forth from side to side. ‘Gary, plant your feet! Stand still!’”
While the other students in the class were charged with choosing existing monologues that they could perform in class, Reid was assigned the job of writing his own original presentation. He says that at first it posed something of a challenge.
“I was used to writing liner notes for albums and CDs, or articles for magazines,” he explains. “It proved to be a different exercise to write material for performance. My instructor, Ted Mills, had taught playwriting previously, and he helped guide me through the process. I wrote sections and then performed them in class. Over time, I developed a feel for what worked, and what didn’t.”
In the spring of 2009, Reid got his first onstage experience when he was cast as Firs, the butler in the school’s spring production of the play, The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekov.
After that, Reid wasted no time in immersing himself in art of acting. “To better acquaint myself with the craft, I began auditioning for parts in local community theatre productions,” he explained. “As I continued to work on developing my show, I became involved in over 60 shows as an actor, stage manager or producer.”
At the same time, there were other skills he had to develop as well. Aside from the fact that he was inexperienced at acting, he also didn’t sing or play an instrument. “I had a guitar, but I didn’t know how to play it,” Reid says in hindsight. Fortunately, as luck would have it, the guitar he did have provided him with a special Carter connection. Blueridge Guitars had developed a line of guitars that were patterned after the guitar Carter Stanley had played in performance. Each year, at Ralph Stanley’s festival, the family of Carter Stanley and the company itself presented one of the guitars to someone who had contributed to the Stanley family legacy. Reid had been the recipient of one of these guitars.
“I signed up for guitar lessons at our local music store, The Fret Mill,” he remembers. “My instructor was Scott Fore, somewhat of a local legend on the guitar. He had his work cut out for him. We worked to duplicate the style that Carter played, using a thumb and finger pick — as opposed to flat pick.”
Reid also signed up for singing lessons.
“I didn’t think there was any hope for me,” he chuckles. “My instructor thought otherwise. She said, ‘I think you can.’ She said I’d never be a great singer, but she could get me to the point where I could perform my show.”
Nevertheless, Reid says that he had other issues to overcome as well. “I am basically an introvert,” he admits. “It was an intensely nerve-wracking experience to put myself out there in these one-on-one instruction situations. I’d leave singing lessons each with perspiration rings around my under arms.”
Nevertheless, the journey proved fruitful. It was five years from the time Reid took his first acting lesson until he presented the first performance of his play. “I tinkered with it off and on during that time and eventually the time came to finally do something with it,” Reid remarks. “A local music distributor gently pushed me to get off the pot. He called the local library and arranged a date for me — September 10, 2014. I gave an evening show and then a matinee the next day. Over the two day period, I had about 350 people in attendance. It went well.”
Nevertheless, Reid says it’s been a continuing struggle to keep the show going. “It seems to be caught between a rock a hard place. The show is theatrical and does contain music, but… it’s not a musical. Theaters seem hesitant to book the show because they consider it — for lack of a better term — to be ‘hillbilly,’ while music venues are similarly hesitant because it’s theater. But, when people of both camps see it, they like it. While the show is about one specific individual, the themes are universal — the struggle/will to succeed, parental rejection, jealousy, addiction, etcetera.”
Through it all, Reid has earned accolades of his own. He’s a three time recipient of IBMA’s award for Best Liner Notes, and received the organization’s nod for Print/Media Person of the Year in 2015. Yet he still remains immersed in research that revolves around the Stanley Brothers. He’s interviewed a number of people who were connected with their career, including musicians, producers, deejays, and promoters. Those efforts continue to fuel his enthusiasm for bringing their story to the fore.
“One of the main reasons I wanted to put the show together is that I hoped it would put me in touch with people who knew them as fans,” Reid reflects. “As time goes on, the list gets fewer and fewer, but it does happen that people come up to me to relate various stories.”
It’s Carter’s story itself that still fascinates him. He was a man raised in unfortunate circumstances, with parents that rejected him early on. Throughout his life, he felt resentful of the fact that he and Ralph never got the big breaks — or the big hits — attained by contemporaries like Flatt and Scruggs. He turned to alcohol to ease his torment. Ultimately it killed him at the young age of 41 in 1966.
“People have asked me, ‘Why Carter?’,” Reid muses. “At the time I started working on the show, Ralph Stanley was still active, working every weekend, telling his story. I sorta felt that Carter – who was so influential in laying the foundations of what we know today as bluegrass music – was largely overlooked. People knew his name and some of his songs, but they rarely knew much – if anything – about the man behind the music.”
Thanks to Reid’s efforts, and his remarkable play in particular, Carter Stanley is finally getting the attention that overlooked him for so long.