"The Music of the Stanley Brothers" by Gary B. Reid

Gary B. Reid
The Music of the Stanley Brothers
University of Illinois Press (2015)

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

At Bean Blossom you sit on a gentle upslope from the stage. To your right is the entry road that goes down to the tail of the pond and the back of the stage before going back up to the Hippie Hill section of camping. The regulars all know when Dr. Ralph Stanley arrives or leaves, his long, white tour bus sliding along, all within hidden behind its windows. Soon after he arrives, someone will erect his pop-up shelter where he holds court to sign autographs and say hello to his fans. It wasn’t always like this.

When Carter Stanley was alive it was the Stanley Brothers show. Still today, a half century after Carter Stanley’s death, there are many songs sung on stage and around campfires that bear the Stanley Brothers name. Travel during the twenty years the brothers were active was by car or station wagon. The pace was often hectic, the financial rewards meager. Band members came and went frequently, as is still the case with many bluegrass bands. Bluegrass music, generally speaking, isn’t a lucrative endeavor unless you’re a breakout star, and many professional bluegrass musicians have another job to make ends meet. The Stanley Brothers stayed the course, putting their names into the bluegrass history books.

Remember when the brothers were doing that Rich-R-Tone session (#480700) back in 1948? When Art Wooten joined them? You don’t remember that?

Truth is, there are probably no more than a pickup-load of people who can remember all the band members through the years, let alone anything about the recording sessions or what was recorded when. But Gary B. Reid knows. In 1976 he sent a letter to Neil Rosenberg, a name known to many bluegrassers and author of Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys: An Illustrated Discography (1974), that started, “For the past several years I have been trying to compile a combination biography/discography on the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys.” Reid was nineteen and it would be another thirty-nine years before that book was published. That is dedication. He did other things along the way, including starting Copper Creek Records.

The book covers the two decades the brothers were a professional act. Both served during World War II. Carter was discharged in February 1946 and joined up with Roy Sykes for a while. Ralph’s discharge was in October 1946 and by November they were making appearances along with mandolinist Darrell “Pee Wee” Lambert and fiddler Bobby Sumner. Their last full concert was at Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom facility. Carter died December 1, 1966, the victim of alcoholism.

This book is rich with information about their professional lives from one recording session to the next, where they were working and who was in the band. The data on the recording sessions is extensive. A typical entry is:

501103 Columbia session; producers: Art Satherly and Don LawCastle Studio, Tulane Hotel, 206 8th Ave., Nashville, TennesseeNovember 3, 1950

Carter Stanley: g|Ralph Stanley: b|Pee Wee Lamber: m

Lester Woodie: f|Ernie Newton: sb

4311 The Lonesome River (Carter Stanley)C. Stanley-L, R. Stanley-T, PW Lambert-HB 20816 HL-7291,HS-11177,ROU-SS-10,BCD-15564,CK-53798,B0007883-02

Neither the uncertainty surrounding song titles or the “borrowing” of songs are a focus of the book, but both are mentioned many times in these pages and this provides an interesting insight into the music business. Sometimes it’s using the same (or very similar) melody with more than one set of lyrics.

“The first song is ‘A Life of Sorrow.’ Carter and Ralph Stanley wrote it with an assist from George Shuffler. The melody is strikingly similar to a tune the Stanley Brothers had recorded earlier on Columbia, ‘I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow,’ and is a good example of how the Stanleys recycled old tunes to create ‘new’ material.” [p. 32, Columbia #4 (Session 520411)]

and

“… used it as an opportunity to recycle the melody to one of their earlier recordings, ‘Little Glass of Wine.’ Known by a number of titles, ‘Tragic Love’ is most commonly called ‘Silver Dagger.'”

There are other examples of songs known by a variety of titles, as well as songs with disputed ownership, songs sold by their composer then the buyer taking songwriting credits, and the practice of claiming credit before agreeing to record the song.

While information about their travels is provided as part of their story, it also becomes a story of its own. Their nomadic lifestyle wasn’t (and isn’t) unusual in the bluegrass world, nor for most other musicians. You have to wonder how families survived and that’s one place the book will leave you wanting. Other than a few mentions of Ralph Stanleys ex-wife, Peggy, and the tidbit that Carter Stanley wrote “Baby Girl” in honor of his year-old daughter, Doris, you won’t get a peek into their family life. There is no mention of how Carter’s bouts with the bottle affected their music. Given the amount of information contained in the book, it’s easy to believe Reid might have another book in him to let us better know Ralph and Carter Stanley as people.

This is an excellent reference for anyone interested in the Stanley Brothers years (but understand it stops with Carter Stanley’s death). I found it an interesting read with my only caution that you may find yourself getting bogged down trying to follow and remember all the histories of people and changes in the band. Don’t get lost in the detail, just keep the book handy when you need to look up something.