BY JAKE CLINE
as much for his laconic demeanor as he is for his distinctive, “high lonesome”
singing, roots-music pioneer Ralph Stanley opens up about his life and career
in this engaging, if often digressive, autobiography. Born and raised in the Virginia mountains, the 82-year-old Stanley came to prominence with his elder brother,
Carter, in the mid-1940s, playing old folksongs and original mountain music at
a time when Bill Monroe was a marquee name. The Stanley Brothers toughed out a
20-year career, barely surviving the advent of Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll
and the neglect of the country-music establishment in Nashville. But Stanley, writing in his native
vernacular, expresses little bitterness over how his once-popular style of music
was marginalized in the 1950s and proves well-amused by its resurgence following
the release of the O Brother Where Art
Thou? soundtrack in 2000.
many an Appalachian folksong, Stanley’s
book is shot through with tales of murder, jealousy, revenge and hardscrabble
living. There’s plenty of grief here, too: Stanley’s recollections of his gone-too-soon brother
are tender and heart-rending, and few men have loved their mothers more than
this one. But Stanley’s
story is not without hope, and his commitment to preserving a way of life that
is fast disappearing and the memory of those unsung mountain musicians who have
gone before him is not only admirable, but essential. It’s no cliché to say
Ralph Stanley is living history, and his book is both a testament and a gift.
We’re lucky to have it.