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The Music of the Stanley Brothers

By Gary Reid and Neil Rosenberg

University of Illinois Press, 312 pages, $30 paperback

Reviewed by Larry Stephens, May 2015

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The Stanley Brothers and Ralph Stanley as a solo artist, are iconic figures in bluegrass. Despite recognition of their names, many would be at a loss to relate details of their lives or their lives in bluegrass, their knowledge limited to the recordings they hear, the festivals where Ralph Stanley appears, the stories around campfires.

Gary Reid's interest in the brothers has been obsessive. There's no other way to describe a man who spent over 40 years in research for this book. In 1976, he wrote Neil Rosenberg, the author of "Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys: An Illustrated Discography" (1974) and a well known name to bluegrass practitioners, asking for information about the Stanley Brothers. His introductory line, written when he was 19, was, "For the past several years, I have been trying to compile a combination biography/discography on the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys." 1976, 19 years old, "And for the past several years ..." What a long, dogged journey to 2015 and publication of his book!

The story begins with a description of their home life. Born into a musically talented family, music was always a part of them. In the early years, it wasn't "bluegrass" music. The family acquired a radio in 1936, which provided them an introduction to the Grand Ole Opry, then a scant nine years old.

Those were the formative years of country music, known then as "country and western." It wasn't until the early '40s that Bill Monroe started carving his music into what he would soon call bluegrass. By late 1939, the Stanleys were performing locally but any thoughts of a musical career were interrupted by World War II. Both served and, after the war, the adventure began.

The remainder of the book, while interesting to anyone curious about the Stanleys or bluegrass in general, is one part a description of their appearances and recording sessions and the other part a detailed discography. The book devotes three pages to describing the format of the discography.

The information includes the session number and information about the place it was recorded and the record company plus the musicians, then a listing of each track with the singers or lead musicians shown. The narrative sets the scene with some insight into the musicians and what the band was doing at the time. The story ends with Carter Stanley's death in 1966 and doesn't delve into Ralph Stanley's solo career.

A very interesting part of the book is the glimpses of the plethora of musicians who worked with the brothers. A quick look through the general index gives you an idea of the many musicians described in the book, and Reid offers interesting details about most of them. How many people know who William R. "Bill" Slaughter is? Yet Reid is able to tell us how he got his chance with the Stanleys, his service in the Army, his college years and his life after college. While informative, some people won't care about such detail and those that do may be overwhelmed. A methodical pace is required to even begin to absorb all this information.

Another interesting part of the story is the picture it paints of the nomadic lifestyle they, and probably most national touring acts, lived. In late 1949, for example, they were working in Winston-Salem N.C. They then took some time off and were headed to Huntington, West Va. for three months and then off the Shreveport, La. for only two weeks and then to Lexington, Ky. You have to wonder how their families survived this.

And that's where the book may leave you wanting more. Almost nothing is said about their personal lives other than how they traveled from one location to the next. Who did they marry? There are references to Ralph Stanley's "first wife," Peggy, but little else. Did Carter Stanley marry? Did he have children. Did Carter's problems with drinking affect their music? You won't find answers here.

This book provides an important link in bluegrass history. The amount of information is staggering, and this will be the encyclopedia of the Stanley Brothers, the best source of information about their musical legacy.