A usually taciturn folk icon takes an engaging ramble through his six-decade career.
A founding father of the string-band style most call bluegrass, Stanley—who prefers the terms “old-time mountain music” or “the Stanley Sound” to define his work—has never been fond of talking about himself. So this autobiography, penned with the knowledgeable music journalist Dean, is a delightful, outspoken surprise. The 82-year-old singer and banjo player reflects on his Primitive Baptist upbringing in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, where real life sometimes imitated the Gothic themes of the region’s music—his uncle shot and killed his wife and himself. With older sibling Carter, Stanley founded the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, one of the first and greatest bluegrass groups, in 1946. He recounts the development of their “high lonesome” sound, their early rivalry and later friendship with Bill Monroe and their harsh life on the road in the ’50s, when rock ’n’ roll threatened to kill off country music. Following Carter’s alcoholism-related death in 1966, Stanley struck out on his own, and he offers fond recollections of such sidemen as his young protégés Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley and antic fiddler Curly Ray Cline. It wasn’t until his 2002 Grammy triumph on the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? that Stanley finally transcended his status as a genre hero to attain his rightful place in the American music pantheon. Unashamedly old-fashioned, opinionated and prickly, Stanley sometimes lashes out at rivals like the late John Duffey of Washington’s Seldom Scene. He’s at his best recalling his backwoods upbringing, the vicissitudes of the bluegrass road, the murder of one of his lead singers, regional Democratic politics, the power of gospel music and old-time religion and the fast-vanishing South of his boyhood.
An often tart yet affecting music memoir.