Lonesome Melodies: The Lives and Music of the Stanley Brothers

2013 holds much in store with books about the first generation bluegrass musicians promised.

Firstly, in February, the University Press of Mississippi will publish Lonesome Melodies: The Lives and Music of the Stanley Brothers (ISBN-13: 978-1-61703-646-0) written by David W. Johnson.

Carter and Ralph Stanley – the Stanley Brothers – are recognised as part of the bluegrass Holy Trinity. Born in south-western Virginia in the 1920, the duo built a career that extended beyond their home territory to win fans in Europe and other far-flung reaches of the world.

Tragically, their story is overshadowed by the premature death of the older of the two, Carter, from chronic alcoholism, restricting their career to just 20 years – 1946 to 1966. Nevertheless, their music has continued to live strongly and deeply in the hearts of their many fans.

Now David Johnson has written the first biography of the Stanley Brothers, providing insight into type of men they were – in the case of Ralph of course, are – as well as giving consideration to their music that sits as comfortably in the sphere of old-time country music as it does bluegrass music.

The late Mike Seeger allowed Johnson to use his invaluable 1966 interviews with the brothers and the author, himself, solicited recollections from George Shuffler, Lester Woodie, Larry Sparks and the late Wade Mainer, among others

I spoke to Johnson about various aspects of the forthcoming book ……

In terms of American vernacular music, what is your background?

“My background in vernacular music began as a young listener growing up north of Boston who was drawn to traditional country music when it could be found on television and radio. I began to develop a serious interest in the music during my three years (1996-1999) as a folk music host on WPSU-FM in State College, Pennsylvania, and WBAA-AM (1999-2000) in West Lafayette, Indiana.

As a writer, I wrote about folk and acoustic music during the 1990s for the Boston Globe and other publications. When I received a magazine assignment in January 2001 to review the soundtrack of O Brother Where Are Thou? I jumped at the chance because I had attended the concert featuring all the artists at the Ryman Auditorium.

In July 2001, I began two years of teaching at Emory and Henry College in southwestern Virginia near the Carter Fold in Hiltons, and Ralph Stanley’s home outside Coeburn. Summer 2002 happened to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the Bristol sessions, and so I educated myself by attending every panel discussion and concert. I wrote about the anniversary of the sessions for the Knight Ridder News Service, and wrote a piece on visiting the Carter Fold that was chosen for Da Capo’s Best Music Writing 2004.

Returning to southwestern Virginia in 2004 after a year in Georgia, I began researching a Stanley Brothers biography in earnest. Many people, events, and recordings helped me learn about the music.”

And how and when did you become aware of the Stanley Brothers?

“Standing near Ralph Stanley’s merchandise table at the Russell County (Virginia) Fair in September 2001, I overheard a woman exclaim to Ralph that she had been a fan of Ralph and Carter’s since 1964. I began to ask colleagues at Emory and Henry College about Carter and to listen to the music of the brothers.”

What prompted you to write the book?

“After seeing Ralph Stanley in person for the first time at the original Down from the Mountain concert in Nashville in late May or early June 2000, I came to love the music of the Stanley Brothers.

As a journalist and academic, I recognized that there was a story here that needed to be preserved . . . and told. Loving the music was a good thing because I listened to it many times for more than a decade.”

I remember reading in 2008 an article that you wrote for the Journal of Country Music and the book was mentioned there; how long have you been working on the book and were there any particularly challenging episodes along the way?

“I believe the article on the Stanley Brothers’ earliest recordings appeared in 2007. I may be wrong.

I began working on the book in a conscious way in fall 2001 when an Emory and Henry colleague, Max Powers, told me about seeing the Stanley Brothers in person at his school around 1949. Max’s recollection was vivid. I realized that quite a few people in southwestern Virginia might recall having seen and heard Carter and Ralph in person and on the radio.

There were many challenging episodes. Two that stand out are when I learned around 2005 that Ralph planned to publish his autobiography, and when my first draft of five chapters was not solid enough to keep the interest of my first potential publisher.

The combination of these two events led me almost to give up. I took heart when my son Matthew, who is a professor, said there always is room for more than one biography; and when Nolan Porterfield, author of a much-admired Jimmie Rodgers biography, suggested that I query editor Craig Gill at the University Press of Mississippi about my project. By this time I had made progress with the writing and was able to submit 16 (of an eventual 19) chapters.”

Nowadays there are few people about that have direct knowledge of the Stanley brothers and their music; whom did you manage to interview that could give you first-hand information?

“I interviewed a number of fans and followers such as Max Powers; many musicians beginning with George Shuffler, Lester Woodie, the late Wade Mainer; and others who knew the brothers well such as boyhood friend Carl Hammons.

Appropriate to undertaking a biography, the first person I interviewed in depth was Ralph Stanley, whom I interviewed twice in 2003 and once in 2005. The first two interviews (one by telephone, the other in person) became the basis of my article Lonesome Melodies: Conversations with Ralph Stanley that appeared in the Mars Hill Review in 2004.

Gary B. Reid, Bill Malone, Neil Rosenberg, Fred Bartenstein, and the late Mike Seeger offered invaluable historical and personal perspectives on the Stanley Brothers.”


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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.