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Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times by…

Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times (edition 2009)

by Ralph Stanley, Eddie Dean

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572310,500 (3.88)4
Title:Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times
Authors:Ralph Stanley
Other authors:Eddie Dean
Info:Gotham (2009), Hardcover, 464 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:music biography

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Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times by Ralph Stanley



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Get yourself an iced tea (sweet, of course), and pull up a rocking chair, as Dr. Ralph Stanley tells y'all a little bit about his life. It's quite clear this autobiography was transcribed from audiotapes, because the writing sounds exactly like how he speaks. He comes across as a cranky ol' feller, but much of that hides an expectation of professionalism built on years of performing.

The book starts in southwest Virginia, where Ralph and his older brother Carter grew up. There are a few "kid" stories and a general acknowledgement of growing up in hard times. Eventually, Carter and Ralph became The Stanley Brothers who sang country and gospel tunes on a Bristol radio station, just down the road from where the Bristol Sessions were recorded some three decades before. They were pretty popular in those early days, having a not-always-so-friendly competition with Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs for listeners. But in the late 1950s, music started to change, most notably with another singer who started out with gospel and country music but would later switch to rock. And after Elvis, the non-Nashville country sound almost disappeared from the map, later to be discovered again in the 1960s folk revival, and then re-discovered in the 2000s after the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Throughout it all, Ralph and his Clinch Mountain Boys tried to remain true to the music, rather than change their style to fit what listeners (or music producers) want to hear.

The parts I loved talked about the long life on the road, sometimes flinging your instruments on the roof of the car and traveling pell-mell just to get to a performance. (I also doubt I'll ever forget the story of the barber who lit his hair on fire as the "regular" special.) It fascinated me that Stanley rarely used a set list; the musicians just "got the feel" of the crowd and adapted. I've also always been amazed at the "cross-pollination" of musicians -- not limited to bluegrass ones, of course -- in that so many times, a band needed a "stringer" to play for them for a couple of dates, which may lead to a more permanent job down the road when one of the band members moves to a different group. We meet a lot of musicians who became a Clinch Mountain Boy, and their stories are as varied as the songs they sang.

There were two things that would have been nice to add to this book. The first is an index, as we have no way to see if a particular singer or song is mentioned. (As just one example, at one point, Stanley notes that he's already talked about his first wife -- apparently, it's not a particularly happy story -- but I don't remember ever reading about that, and there's no way to pinpoint where she might have been mentioned.) The second is that a book of this type usually has an inset of pictures. There's a collage on the overleaf, but there are really no captions there, so it's hard to tell who the people are.

LT Haiku:

Bio of singer
(and his bandmates) of country/
bluegrass/gospel mix. ( )
  legallypuzzled | Sep 14, 2014 |
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 vote SamSattler | Jan 18, 2010 |
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First words
When I was just a little boy growing up in the mountains of southwest Virginia, singing was as natural as breathing.
There used to be a saying that when you heard a Stanley Brothers record, you either want to get drunk or go to church and get saved. ~Ralph Stanley
Hit or miss, we wanted to keep our style of music and be natural. But that stubbornness cost us a lot; you always sacrifice a lot to follow your dreams. [p213]
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Haiku summary
Bio of singer

(and his bandmates) of country/

bluegrass/gospel mix.


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The legendary classic-style bluegrass performer recounts his early partnership with his late brother, the inspiration for such songs as "White Dove" and "Rank Stranger," and his work with the Clinch Mountain Boys.

(summary from another edition)

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