03—Man of Constant Sorrow, My Life and Times by Dr. Ralph Stanley with Eddie Dean

Dr. Ralph Stanley's autobiography is an interesting read. It is a serious look into the roots of what he calls country music and a sincere reporting of the events of his life and his love of the music. He gives the reader a glimpse into the musical and social history of the United States as seen through his life.

That said, Stanley is wont to rambling and repetition. Because of this the book is probably 100 pages too long. A good editor could make this a very good read. The book also lacks an index and captions for the photos on the end covers. In fact a section of photos with captions would be preferable.

His faith is a big part of who he is. In talking about his faith he says (page 394) “…I don't much like to talk about what I believe.” Yet in most every chapter he talks about his faith as a christian and he devotes a good part of one chapter about his baptism when in his 70s or 80s.

Stanley is not an introspective nor nice man. He plays potentially harmful practical jokes on his “friends.” He also has an intolerance for differences, and he seems to think of himself as better than many of the men who play and sing his music. In one chapter, for instance, he talks about some of the singers who performed with his band, The Clinch Mountain Boys. He refers to them as“dim bulbs” because they were not too smart. He felt they were good singers and was happy to have them in his band because they provided amuesment during long road trips. It seems their lack of intelligence was fodder for laughter.

He often talks about the practical jokes his brother Carter, the Clinch Mountain Boys, and he play on the musicians. He claims they are harmless jokes yet when you give someone enough exlax to make them need to go to the bathroom all night, that's not harmless.

Stanley had no tolerance for the egos of others (although he had plenty for his own). If he thought someone was too cocky about his singing he would do his best to take him down a peg and embarrass him. Once, a singer named Duffy seemed too sure of himself. When auditioning Duffy, Stanley began the song two keys higher than normal in order to prove to Duffy he wasn't as good as he thought he was.

He also mentions an incident when he and his brother Carter were young men. They owned a mean horse that wouldn't work for them. They tied the horse to a tree and beat it. They were not nice people.

I am torn between like and dislike for Ralph Stanley. On the one hand he's got a passive mean streak and on the other hand, he led a difficult life and worked hard to spread country music, his music. He had little, if any, tolerence for the way others changed the music—the fusion of Ralph Stanley's old time country music into today's bluegrass and newgrass was abhorrent to him.

All in all, I would recommend the book, even though it sometimes bogs down in repetition.

© Surveyor of the Passing Scene