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The Music of the Stanley Brothers brings together forty years of passionate research by scholar and record label owner Gary Reid. A leading authority on Carter and Ralph Stanley, Reid augments his own vast knowledge of their music with interviews, documents ranging from books to folios sold by the brothers at shows, and the words of Ralph Stanley, former band members, guest musicians, session producers, songwriters, and bluegrass experts. The result is a reference that illuminates the Stanleys' art and history. It is all here: dates and locations; the roster of players on well-known and obscure sessions alike; master/matrix and catalog/release numbers, with reissue information; a full discography sorting out the Stanleys' complex recording history; the stories behind the music; and exquisitely informed biographical notes that place events in the context of the brothers' careers and lives.
Monumental and indispensable, The Music of the Stanley Brothers provides fans and scholars alike with a guide for immersion in the long career and breathtaking repertoire of two legendary American musicians.
About the Author
Gary Reid is the founder and head of Copper Creek Records, a label specializing in bluegrass and old-time music, and is a three-time winner of the International Bluegrass Music Award for best liner notes.
Read an Excerpt
The Music of the Stanley Brothers
By Gary B. Reid
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
DEATH IS ONLY A DREAM
The Stanley Brothers are recognized today as members of a trio of bands that helped define and popularize the style of music that came to be known as bluegrass. Along with Bill Monroe, the acknowledged "Father of Bluegrass Music," and the duo of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Carter and Ralph Stanley were instrumental in shaping the destiny of the music, imprinting it with a soulful tinge culled from the mountainous region of their native southwest Virginia. They added a distinctive array of excellently crafted original material and delivered it in a highly emotive manner that remains unequaled to this day.
The duo traveled and recorded together for twenty years, from 1946 to 1966, until the untimely passing of Carter Stanley. In their two decades of performing, they recorded nearly 350 songs for a variety of labels including Columbia, Mercury, Starday, and King. They appeared in forty-three states and seven foreign countries.
After the death of Carter Stanley, esteem for the duo continued to rise, and their music is more popular today than it was during their brief time together. They have been the subject of several comprehensive boxed-set reissue projects, and the Barter Theatre, the State Theatre of Virginia, presented a well-received theatrical portrayal of their lives in a play called Man of Constant Sorrow. Carter and Ralph Stanley are members of the International Bluegrass Music Association's Hall of Honor (renamed Hall of Fame in 2007). The duo's popularity received its biggest boost with the inclusion of their music in the soundtrack of the runaway movie success O Brother, Where Art Thou? Ralph Stanley has maintained a successful forty-plus-year solo career that includes multiple Grammy awards, congressional and presidential honors, the erection of a state-of-the-art museum in his hometown of Clintwood, Virginia, and countless awards from music and civic organizations.
Oft My Thoughts Drift Back to Childhood
Carter and Ralph, the Stanley Brothers, were born in Dickenson County in rural southwestern Virginia, near a small community known as Big Spraddle Creek. Their mother, Lucy Smith Stanley, was one of twelve children—all of whom played five-string banjo. Their father, Lee Stanley, a logger by trade, was a gifted singer who enjoyed old mountain ballads. Both Lucy and Lee Stanley had been married previously and had lost their first spouses to death. Both had children from their prior marriages. Carter and Ralph were the only two children the couple had together. Carter Glen Stanley was born on August 27, 1925, and Ralph Edmond Stanley followed on February 25, 1927.
In addition to musical parents, Carter and Ralph had an extended family that influenced them. Their uncle, Jim Henry Stanley, would sometimes join their father in leading hymns such as "Village Church Yard." Their half-sisters on their father's side of the family were acquainted with ballads such as "Omie Wise," "The Brown Girl," and "Ellen Smith." The McClure Church, a Primitive Baptist church, exposed the young Stanleys to the "lined out" style of hymn singing, a method in which a song leader chants a line of a song and the congregation then sings the line.
Music started to make an impression on the young Stanley boys as they neared their teen years. In addition to the music of their parents, aunts, and uncles, they began to hear music from across the mountains when the family acquired a radio in 1936. Among the programs they heard was the Grand Ole Opry, a live Saturday evening show that aired over WSM from Nashville, Tennessee. Started in 1927, the show was, by the late 1930s, home to a number of popular personalities, including Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, and Bill Monroe. Also popular in the Stanley household were programs from stations located just south of the Texas-Mexican border. Free from the constraints of the US Federal Communications Commission, these border stations broadcast at very high levels of wattage that allowed them to blanket much of the United States. They used singing cowboys and hillbilly acts such as the Carter Family and Mainer's Mountaineers to help sell a plethora of products aimed at rural audiences. As Carter and Ralph went about their morning chores before school, they would imagine that sticks of kindling wood were instruments and pretend to replicate on them the sounds heard over the airwaves.
Traveling musicians would also contribute to the Stanleys' musical development. A local appearance of Clayton McMichen and the Delmore Brothers made a significant impact on Carter Stanley. He related in later years that it was McMichen's showmanship that inspired him to pursue a career in music. It wasn't long afterward that the boys got to see an early incarnation of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys when it featured vocalist Clyde Moody, who worked with Monroe from the latter part of 1940 through 1944. Monroe would be an inspiration to the Stanley Brothers throughout their career.
Carter Stanley ordered a guitar from a mail-order catalog some time in 1938 or '39. The local mailman, who made his rounds on horseback, showed Carter how to make his first chords on the guitar. Ralph purchased a banjo from one of his aunts not long afterward; he had the choice of a pig or banjo and opted for the musical instrument. His mother showed him his first tunes, which he played in the old clawhammer style. When performing "Shout Little Lulie," a regionally popular tune that was commonly used to teach beginning musicians, Ralph invariably informed his audience, "this is the first tune I learned to play from my mother."
Carter and Ralph honed their skills by performing with other musicians. A 1939 photograph shows them in the company of a young teenage fiddler named Bernard Nunley. Another friend, Jewel Martin, recalled being in a band with Carter and Ralph called the Lazy Ramblers. He noted, "We were all just learning to play. If one of us learned a new chord or run, we couldn't wait until we showed the others."
Performance opportunities were usually limited to their home, but the brothers occasionally provided music for school plays and the like. Their first radio exposure occurred—most likely in the early 1940s—when they appeared on the Barrel of Fun program, a Saturday morning show that was broadcast over WJHL from the Bonnie Kate Theater in Elizabethton, Tennessee. The show served as a proving ground for other aspiring entertainers, notably fiddler Clarence "Tater" Tate.
World War II interrupted any thoughts the brothers might have had about a career in music. Upon graduation from high school in 1943, Carter entered the army. During part of his hitch, he was stationed at Kingman Army Air Field, where he worked, according to one of the brothers' songbooks, as "an armourer." A similar fate awaited Ralph in May of 1945. Although hostilities had officially ended, Ralph still did a tour of duty in Germany, serving in General George Patton's Third Army.
Carter Stanley was discharged at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland in late February of 1946. At the time of his discharge, he made the acquaintance of another musician from southwestern Virginia, Roy Sykes. Sykes had had a band before the war, and he was intent on organizing a new one. It wasn't long until he made good on his goal. In April advertisements, articles, and daily radio listings began appearing in the Norton, Virginia, newspaper showing that Sykes and his Blue Ridge Mountain Boys—a group that included the recently discharged Carter Stanley—had a daily radio show and were performing at theaters, land auctions, park openings, and even a Kiwanis club meeting. No doubt Carter was getting a good education in the mechanics of operating a band.
Ralph's discharge came in the middle of October 1946. Carter and their father met him at the bus station in St. Paul, Virginia. Before he had a chance to make it home, they took a detour to radio station WNVA in Norton, where Ralph sang a song on the air with the Sykes band.
Ralph continued to work with Sykes for a few weeks but grew dissatisfied with the situation. He quickly came to the conclusion that life in the Roy Sykes band wasn't for him and thought of using his GI benefits to go to school to become a veterinarian. Finally, he told Carter that he'd be willing to start a new band, as the Stanley Brothers; otherwise, he was going to explore other opportunities.
Consequently, Carter and Ralph organized their own group in November of 1946. They took with them the mandolin player from Sykes's band, Darrell "Pee Wee" Lambert. They found a fiddler, Bobby Sumner, from a town not far away in eastern Kentucky. The group did some radio work on WNVA in Norton and made at least one personal appearance, near Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Carter noted, "We was sponsored by a company called Clinch Valley Insurance Company, and we had originally planned to name the group the Clinch Valley Boys, and as a result of their name they suggested we call it the Clinch Mountain Boys."
The area takes its name from the Clinch Mountain range, which lies slightly to the east of Carter and Ralph's home in Dickenson County and runs approximately 150 miles, from near Blaine, Tennessee, in the south to near Burke's Garden, Virginia, in the north. The first recorded reference to the area's name was made on April 9, 1750, when Dr. Thomas Walker, a physician and explorer for the Loyal Land Company, wrote in his journal that his expedition came to a river, "which I suppose to be the one the hunters call Clinch's river, a hunter who first found it."
Rolling Along, Singing a Song
The Tennessee-Virginia border town of Bristol has been witness to two monumental events in country music history. The first took place in July and August of 1927 when Victor talent scout Ralph Peer set up shop in a building on State Street for the purpose of recording songs to release on phonograph records. The recordings that were made in Bristol resulted in what has often been referred to as the "Big Bang of Country Music." These sessions weren't the first to record country music; Peer had recorded the first country music session four years earlier when he cut two sides by a Georgia musician, Fiddlin' John Carson. But the Bristol sessions, as they have come to be known, were influential in that they launched the careers of two of country music's early stars: the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.
Much attention, both locally and nationally, has been paid to the Bristol sessions. The Country Music Foundation issued a splendid two-CD set highlighting thirty-five of the seventy-six recordings made at the sessions; a collection of articles about the sessions has been assembled in a book called The Bristol Sessions: Writings About the Big Bang of Country Music; the city of Bristol's Rhythm and Roots Festival draws tens of thousands of attendees annually; and the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance (BCMA) recently opened the 24,000-square-foot Birthplace of Country Music Museum that documents the region's musical legacy that began with the Bristol sessions.
The other big event is less well known. It had its start in December of 1946. Like many communities throughout the United States, people in Bristol were adjusting to a new prosperity that was ushered in with the close of World War II. Innovative ventures were springing up everywhere, and one that energized people locally was the birth of a radio station. The station in Bristol was part of a wave of broadcasting facilities that were opening up across the nation, many of which were located in rural municipalities. Local radio offered a decidedly hometown flavor. This contrasted with the programming of the more established urban stations and struck a responsive chord with country audiences, many of which were recently electrified and proud radio owners. WCYB took its name from C it Y of Bristol. Its premier transmission took place, in a snub to superstition, on Friday, December 13, 1946.
The first day of broadcasting at WCYB contained a mixture of programs, including "music and news from leased wires of the Associated Press." Other items of interest included local tobacco market reports, sports events, and a story hour for children. One program that made its debut in the 12:50 to 1:30 p.m. time slot, with a five-minute break for news at the top of the hour, would ensure the station's musical legacy: Farm & Fun Time.
The program got off to a rather inauspicious start with music being performed by two local musicians, Roy Webb and Therl E. "Cousin Zeke" Leonard. But in time, Farm & Fun Time was host to virtually all of the seminal first-generation bluegrass performers: the Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, Mac Wiseman, Jim & Jesse, Jimmy Martin and Bob Osborne, and the Sauceman Brothers. Traditional country performers such as the Blue Sky Boys and Charlie Monroe also worked the program.
Soon, Farm & Fun Time occupied the popular 12:05 to 1:00 spot. It reached a five-state area that included Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, and quickly became a regional institution. Prior to WCYB's debut, noontime country music programs had been a feature of many radio stations, especially in the South, for well over a decade.
In December 1946, the Stanleys learned of the new station going on the air in Bristol. Lee Stanley spoke to WCYB management on his sons' behalf and secured an audition for them. They were one of thirty-five bands the station previewed. The Stanley Brothers and Curly King and the Tennessee Hilltoppers were the two bands chosen to appear on the station. Carter related once that station vice president and general manager Fey Rogers told them that he wouldn't "promise you a dose of medicine" but that they were welcome to appear on the show. The program didn't pay a salary to any of the performers, but it did provide an outlet for advertising their show dates.
It's hard to say whether the Stanley Brothers made Farm & Fun Time, or Farm & Fun Time made the Stanley Brothers. Perhaps it was a little of both. Lee Stanley had posters and window cards made up advertising Carter and Ralph's spot on Farm & Fun Time. Their performances on WCYB garnered fairly immediate results as far as obtaining personal appearance dates. Speaking with Mike Seeger in 1966, Ralph Stanley recalled:
And then we started on Bristol on this Farm & Fun Time, and like I say, the first show, I think we made two dollars and forty-eight cents apiece and the next show we played we had two full houses ... from then on we couldn't find a house big enough to hold the people for the next two or three year.
Also speaking with Mike Seeger about requests for personal appearance dates, Carter Stanley remembered that in the early days, "We used to get anywhere, I think ... twelve or fourteen is about the highest we ever got in one day."
For farm families gathering for dinner, live hillbilly music was a regular fixture of the meal. Mac Wiseman related, "I've had hundreds—maybe thousands—of people tell me over the years how they'd get up early and work late out in the fields just so they could come in the house at noon and hear the program." Speaking of the early appeal of Farm & Fun Time, Ralph Stanley noted, "We got a big pile of mail every day. We got so many job offers from the program, at times we couldn't meet the demand. When the show was one hour long, there was a waiting line for sponsors trying to advertise on it. They went to two hours and there was still a waiting line!"
Tennessee's Tri-Cities area of Bristol, Kingsport, and Johnson City had more than a popular radio program going for it. Johnson City was home to an upstart independent record label that specialized in hillbilly music. Rich-R-Tone Records later touted itself as the first indie label dedicated exclusively to bluegrass music. James Hobart Stanton, who went by Jim or "Hobe," organized the company. Eventually, the label would put out releases by a host of artists, including Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, the Stanley Brothers, the Bailey Brothers, the Sauceman Brothers, Jim Eanes, and the Church Brothers, as well as regional favorites such as Curly King, the Mullins Family, and Buster Pack.
Excerpted from The Music of the Stanley Brothers by Gary B. Reid. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Getting to Know Gary Reid Neil V. Rosenberg xi
Format of the Discographies xv
1 Death Is Only a Dream: 1947-1948 1
2 To Us, That Would Have Been the Impossible: Columbia Records, 1949-1952 20
3 Some of Our Best Recordings Were the Mercurys: 1953-1958 40
4 "How Mountain Girls Can Love": The Early King/Starday Years, 1958-1962 86
5 "Stone Walls and Steel Bars": The Later King Years, 1963-1966 165
Numerical Listing of Releases 225
General Index 259
Song Index 279