Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Stanley Brothers

In reading Ralph Stanley's memoirs, I have been struck (and saddened) by the hardships they faced as musicians. They traveled the country, spent long nights driving from show to show, worked their hardest, held high standards for their performances, assembled great bands, and still barely survived. The music business is always hard, but it was particularly hard for folks who adhered to certain types of music that they--and a coterie of loyal fans--loved, but that did not reach broader audiences.

With the passage of time, the Stanley Brothers have achieved high honors and fame for their music. Politicians and musicians have hailed their works. But in their day, they were barely surviving. Elvis and the youth revolution in music was devastating to many country musicians. It is ironic because Elvis loved old time country and gospel music. Many in country music responded with electricity, changes in hair and dress styles, and productive techniques to produce "the Nashville sound." Lots of good music came out of "the Nashville sound," but it was compromised, modernized, and urbanized. The older musicians went hungry.

What salvaged Bluegrass music and Mountain music was the folk festivals. Crowds of wild, often not-very-country looking young people flocked to the festivals to hear accustic, old-time folk music with tunes and lyrics reaching back in time to the hills of Appalachia and the further back to the glens and dales of Scotland.

Even though the Stanley Brothers were fighting to survive, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were enjoying amazing success. Flatt and Scruggs appeared at Carnegie Hall; Flatt and Scruggs provided the theme song for the popular Beverly Hillbillies show and they also appeared on occasion on the show; Flatt and Scruggs provided the theme music for the movie "Bonnie and Clyde." Flatt and Scruggs were traveling the country in a big bus, enjoying fame and financial success.

Yet, the Stanley Brothers were equally as talented as Flatt and Scruggs. Carter Stanley was one of the better songwriters and stylists of his time. Ralph's banjo method was different froom Earl Scruggs, but then, only Bach could have come close to playing an instrument as good as Earl. (I'll bet in heaven, Bach sometimes says, "Bill (Monroe), you take the next licks on this song.")
The Stanley Brothers had assembled an outstanding band with a great array of music from their own compositions and other things they had gathered here and there.

Success was slow for the Stanley Brothers. Carter died in 1966 and Ralph trudged on. Often Ralph was instrumental in fostering the musical careers of young musicans like Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs. Finally, when the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" came out, the world discovered Ralph Stanley. It was the key song of that movie--"Man of Constant Sorrow"--that was originally a Stanley Brother classic. It was Ralph Stanley who shook the world with his haunting, a cappella rendition of "O, Death" in the KKK scene of the movie, and it was another Stanley Brothers' song, "Angel Band" that was played at the end of the movie.

After that movie, Ralph Stanley enjoyed an incredible amount of attention and financial success. He was 75 at the time. A major recording company signed him on. He was inducted into the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. He became a 75 year old overnight success. Even political leaders courted Stanley. Unfortunately, Stanley, being an old Truman Democrat, has been duped by such politicians as John Edwards and Barack Obama. (He supports Democrats because he thinks they help the more poor and needy.)

The Stanley Brothers have yet to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Along with Cowboy Copas and a few others, these fellows should recieve that ultimate honor.


  1. Thanks for this wonderful post about some of the best musicians in the business. I grew up listening to records of the Stanley Brothers and Ralph's music. I loved the more raw sound. I played Scruggs style because that is what everyone did. I could never nail Ralph's style. I've never heard anyone that can.

  2. So, was Mountain Dew actually some form of moonshine? Or just a really refreshing beverage that was song-worthy. Either way I doubt it was that strange yellow color we see today.

  3. Lawrence: I am jealous of anyone who could play Scrugg's style, attempt Ralph Stanley's incredible method, or even flail away like Stringbean did. By all means, get and read Ralph Stanley's memoir. He gives a good Christian testimony, although few musicians could pass a serious theological test.

    Lydia: They called it Mountain Dew, Moonshine, White Lightening, Whiskey, Hootch, Corn Liquor, the Recipe (the Baldwin ladies on "The Waltons," Snake Bite Medicine (with the expectation of carrying a snake along to guarantee its use) and a host of other names. The soda water with that name is yellow, but I think--don't actually know--that the real stuff was usually clear. William Faulkner and Carter Stanley could have given expert opinions.