Those hymns had a profound influence on the boys; besides simply emulating the bands they grew up on—and they did their share of that in the beginning—the Stanleys incorporated the old gospel into their repertoire, sometimes adapting songs they learned in church for the less-pious crowd. Oftentimes preachers they knew would offer them new tunes for consideration. One of my favorites, "The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn," came to Ralph Stanley in a dream, words and melody, leaving him scrambling for a pen in the wee hours so he could get it down on paper: The darkest hour is just before dawn, the narrow way leads home / lay down your soul at Jesus' feet / the darkest hour is just before dawn.
More than the words, it's the Stanley way of singing that can stir the hearts of even nonbelievers. (Ralph recalls a few people finding religion at his shows.) Grief and faith were common themes in Stanley Brothers songs—mothers and daddies dying, lovers betrayed, tormented souls yearning for heaven. Carter played guitar and sang lead baritone while Ralph played banjo and sang high tenor. But banjoists, Ralph now professes, are a dime a dozen. He cared most about the singing; the multipart harmonies—accomplished with help from backing band the Clinch Mountain Boys—gave the Stanleys their distinctive sound.
After the second war, when the brothers were getting their start, bands would work directly out of radio stations, hosting live variety shows. The brothers' first break was landing a live radio show called Farm and Fun Time; they weren't paid a dime, but it got their name out so they could start booking paid gigs. Musicianship was key, but you had to be entertainers, too; many a Clinch Mountain Boy doubled as a comedian.
The Stanleys' often-sorrowful songs were leavened with silliness and spectacle. Over the years, they had one member who played the role of a country simpleton, another did a snazzy bullwhip act, a third was hired for his drop-dead imitations. Yet another—remember the time and place—performed a blackface routine. (Stanley later supported Barack Obama's bid for president and recorded a radio ad on Obama's behalf, an endorsement that carried weight among the socially conservative coal-field crowd.)
Ralph Stanley may prefer singing to talking, but Eddie Dean manages to aggravate all kinds of good material out of him. "I wish I could have captured better his sense of humor, so dry it's parched, and it was damn near impossible to get down on paper," Dean tells me. Still, you can imagine sitting on the front porch of an old farmhouse, being drawn in by this old man's endless stories, bringing to life the color and characters of the competitive country music scene from the 1920s on up. Relentless touring, no-good promoters, sketchy record deals, revelry and pranks (Carter would slip laxatives to a rival player). There were drunken brawls and trashed motel rooms and shootings and feuds (a livid Lester Flatt calling Carter out for fisticuffs; Bill Monroe throwing a fit and defecting to Decca after Columbia signed the Stanleys; Ralph fixing to kill the pranking front man of the Seldom Scene). Taken together, Ralph's musings amount to no less than the oral history of a quintessentially American music scene that was swept from the mainstream by the arrival of rock and roll in the late 1950s. Or, as Stanley puts it in the book: "Elvis just about starved us out."
Considering that Ralph Stanley has recorded more than 200 LPs and CDs and spent decades touring, you'd think he'd have been living on easy street long ago. And he did do pretty well at various points in his career. But it really wasn't until the release of the Coen bros' film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Stanley's 2002 Grammy for his gritty a capella version of "O Death" that he finally saw the kind of recognition he deserved.
Released in 2000, the movie was a forgettable Odyssey spoof featuring George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson as a trio of musical misfits. But the soundtrack, produced by musician T-Bone Burnett, soared to the top of the country charts. It sold more than 7 million copies and reawakened a national appreciation for a nearly forgotten country sound—a far cry from the Country & Western schmaltz Nashville pumps out. Among the tracks were Ralph Stanley's "O Death," the Stanley Brothers' rendition of "Angel Band," and two Carter Stanley arrangements of "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," performed by others. Burnett barely scratched the surface, but he mined a vast tradition of old songs about love and love lost, murder, faith, and occasional joy—the story of the Southern mountains, and the Stanley Brothers story, too.
It's inevitable, when you live to be 82, that you see a lot of friends buried. And Stanley, like his parents, experienced more than his share of sorrow. He's seen more than one Clinch Mountain Boy pass on. (After one of them was murdered in cold blood by a jealous man, Stanley got the phone call from his bandmate's 12-year-old son, who'd watched it happen.) There was the fire that burned the old Stanley home to the ground. And perhaps hardest of all, in 1966, Ralph lost his best friend, Carter Stanley, whose weakness for the bottle led to his death of liver disease at age 41. Ralph considered hanging up his banjo, but he didn't. Rather than fade away into the hills, the quieter Stanley broke out of his wallflower role and took the reins. The rest is music history.
Click here to see more portraits of old-time musicians by photographer Tim Barnwell. You can follow Michael Mechanic on Twitter.