Q. How many Stanley Brothers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A. Two. Carter Stanley to do it, and Ralph Stanley to talk about how much better the old bulb was.
That's a joke I usually apply to Vermonters, but it aptly captures one side of renowned old-time crooner Ralph Stanley, whose memoir, Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times, is out this week on Gotham Books. A recurring theme—the book is first person, as told to music writer Eddie Dean—involves a time when fellow musicians on the struggling bluegrass circuit were changing their acts to suit modern audiences and compete with rock and roll. Stanley wouldn't budge. He won't even call his music "bluegrass"—despite his close friendship with Kentucky's late Bill Monroe, the country music pioneer from whom the term originated (Kentucky being the bluegrass state). Sure, Stanley admires those fast pickers (like Monroe, Ricky Skaggs, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs), but he'll just tell you he plays hillbilly music. He prefers the old lightbulb.
Little surprise, given his upbringing in the remote mountain towns of Dickenson County, Virginia—where he was "borned" and still lives at age 82. "There were no books I can recall, save for the family Bible," he says of the home place. "There wasn't much in the way of toys and playthings like children have today. My parents wouldn't allow even a deck of playing cards in the house, because it could lead to gambling and all kinds of trouble. For Christmas, we'd get an orange, one for Carter and one for me, and a handful of rock candy. Maybe a cap-gun, too. It wasn't 'til years later that I got a bicycle of my own and I had to trade a dog to get that bike."
One of the family's few modern conveniences, as Ralph puts it, was a wind-up Victrola, which the boys would use to wear out stacks of 78 rpm records from groups like the seminal Carter Family, Grayson & Whitter, and Fiddlin' Powers and Family. There was a radio, too, which picked up Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. The boys fell in love with acts like Roy Acuff, Charlie and Bill Monroe, the Delmore Brothers, Uncle Dave Macon, and Fiddlin' Arthur Smith. They also got a taste for traditional tunes from their father, Lee Stanley, who liked to sing old songs like "I'm a Man of Constant Sorrow," "Pretty Polly," "Wild Bill Jones," and "Omie Wise."
The Stanleys didn't have much money. Nobody in those mountains did. What they did have were musical genes, a stubborn willfulness, and a shared legacy of sorrow. Lucy Smith, one of 11 siblings—all of whom played musical instruments—was 38 years old and already twice widowed when she married Lee Stanley, a widower himself. Her first loss was her teenage sweetheart and fiancé, who died in a mining accident. A decade later she remarried, only to have her new husband succumb to a brain tumor two years later. Somewhere in the bargain, she gave birth to a daughter, Ruby. Lee brought three boys and three girls to the marriage, but because the half-siblings were so much older than Carter and Ralph, the brothers were pretty much raised on their own. "My dad's first wife died and I never did know what of, because my dad never did say and I never did ask," Ralph recalls.
He wouldn't have, either. Ralph was like that. Carter, two years his senior, was the gregarious one—a charming, born-salesman type. Ralph, shy and awkward, kept a low profile. "It was hard work getting Dr. Ralph to open up, as he is not talkative or introspective by nature and his age was a factor as well," coauthor Dean tells me via email. "Like, he told me last time I spoke with him for the acknowledgements section, 'I want to thank you Eddie, for aggravating me for the last two and a half years.' He was only half-joking."
That "doctor" title might seem a stretch for a man who was never one for book learning and never attended college. But oddly enough, the younger Stanley took to the title after receiving an honorary doctorate later in his career. That he even had a lasting music career was an impressive act of perseverance. The Stanley boys did try other things from time to time, but the music always called them back. In May 1945, just out of high school, Ralph joined the Army and was shipped off to Germany. The fighting was mostly over and there was a lot of cleaning up to do, disarming citizens and the like, but Stanley's banjo picking caught the attention of his superiors and got him promoted. In the end, though, following orders wasn't for him.
Back home in rural Virginia, there were more or less two choices: the coal mines or the lumber mills, where Lee Stanley worked. Ralph actually did a short stint in the mills at one point, and hated it. By and large, the brothers promised one another that they would stick together and perform their way out of this brutal employment dead end that stole the youth of so many young men.
None of their half-siblings played music, and Lucy had long ago laid down her clawhammer banjo to raise a family, but Ralph and Carter were determined. Their parents supported their aspirations, too, even though some people in those mountains still frowned upon professional musicians as sinners and ne'er-do-wells—back in the Depression era, even family acts were considered morally suspect. Music was something for church. And indeed, it was at the old Primitive Baptist Church, where Lucy's brother preached, that the boys got their first taste of the power of gospel music sung a capella. The church didn't allow musical instruments—only the Lord's music as lined out by the preacher for his flock to sing.