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Man Of Constant Sorrow: My Life And Times

By By Dr. Ralph Stanley with Eddie Dean

Gotham Books, 453 pages, $27.50 hard cover

Reviewed by C. Eric Banister, October 2009

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With "Man Of Constant Sorrow" Dr. Ralph Stanley provides a rare firsthand glimpse at the dawning of a new music style - bluegrass - and what it was like to travel the backloads and spread the bluegrass word. Of the early bluegrass innovators, Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers, this is the only book that provides that firsthand knowledge.

Dr. Stanley kicks off the book diving deep into where the sound of his voice comes from before recounting the surroundings of which he was raised. No stone is left unturned as he recounts the singing of his father, his first banjo and the early seeds of the Stanley Brothers. Great stories abound as the fledgling groups gets their big break on a small nearby station.

The stories of the interaction and friendly (and sometimes, not so friendly) rivalries with other bluegrass pioneer such as Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs will bring a smile to any bluegrass fan. Road stories from nearly every incarnation of the Clinch Mountain Boys of serve to remind both current fans and musicians of the hard times these groups had in making a living with this then-new music.

As anyone who has read many interviews with Stanley realizes, he isn't generally shy about tooting his own horn, but throughout the book he generously gives credit where it is due - particularly to big brother Carter Stanley. The early part of the book is as much Carter's story as it is Ralph's. Carter's support and encouragement obviously meant the world to Ralph and the chapter dealing with Carter's death is heartrending in its detail. Stanley recounts it as if it was yesterday and the regrets he expresses linger to this day, some 40 years later.

Carter's death became a time of decision for Ralph as he had shows booked and he forged ahead to honor those dates. In continuing as a solo act, Ralph made a conscious decision to move the music toward more of a primitive sound that Carter had eschewed, thus Ralph carved out a sound and legacy of his own.

Enough can't be said about the great stories in this book. From his first meeting of the "Stanley Brothers Junior," Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley, to his opportunity to reach a new, and perhaps younger, audience with the "O Brother! Where Art Thou" soundtrack, to his Grammy win for O Death.

Mention must be made of Dr. Stanley's co-writer, Eddie Dean. When putting pen to paper, Dean is deftly able to keep the speech patterns and cadence of Dr. Ralph Stanley to the point where the reader will feel like they are sitting on the front porch listening personally to Stanley spin yarn after yarn.

Fans of music, particularly bluegrass, will find this book a gripping tale of an artist rising from the humblest beginnings, taking control of their own music and destiny and rising to the top of their field. Beginning his career in his teens, Dr. Stanley is 83 years old and is still playing shows and entertaining the crowds.