The Music of the Stanley Brothers by Gary B. Reid (review)
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The Music of the Stanley Brothers. By Gary B. Reid. (Music in American Life.) Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. [xvii, 286 p. ISBN 9780252080333 (paperback), $30; ISBN 9780252096723, varies.] Discographies, photographs, numerical listing of releases, notes, bibliography, indexes.

Gary Reid has written as thorough a history of the Stanley Brothers’ recording and touring career as anyone could want. [End Page 746] Complete with an exhaustive discography and a colorful narrative, this addition to the University of Illinois Press’s Music in American Life series will delight any fan of the Stanleys, and prove useful to any researcher interested in the band’s musical activities and significance to bluegrass music. Reid is a fan, a producer, and an amateur historian (in the best sense of the word), and although he sometimes neglects to engage with broader cultural and musicological themes, he has succeeded in producing a helpful, fine-grained account of one of the most important bluegrass acts of the twentieth century.

The book’s table of contents immediately reveals Reid’s interest in recordings and discography. Except for the first part of chapter 1, in which Reid recounts the childhoods of Carter and Ralph Stanley and the band’s formation, Reid organizes the entire narrative around recording sessions and record labels. The focus on recordings is confirmed by Neil Rosenberg’s explanation of the formatting of the discographies found at the end of each chapter (an explanation that would have been more effective with a sample discography at hand for reference). This focus makes sense, given that Reid is the founder of Copper Creek records, a label that put “The Best in Traditional Bluegrass” on its letterhead before Rosenberg had even heard the term “traditional bluegrass” (p. xiii). At the heart of Reid’s book about the Stanley Brothers, and Reid’s professional life, is one of the central tensions of bluegrass music: the interplay between a reliance on innovative technology and commercial enterprise for the flourishing of the genre, and the mythology of its authenticity and unchanging tradition. As Jocelyn Neal states, “The meaning fans have ascribed to bluegrass since its inception in 1945 has always been full of contradictions. It is simultaneously a modern, virtuosic form of string-band music pioneered by Monroe in the mid-1940s and a reflection of an idealized old-time, homespun tradition. . . . It is viewed as anticommercial, yet also as a musical tradition that is fully en-twined with commercial sponsorship” (Jocelyn Neal, Country Music: A Cultural and Stylistic History [New York: Oxford University Press, 2013], 155). The Music of the Stanley Brothers is full of these fascinating contradictions. The musical influences Reid describes as formational in the development of the Stanley Brothers’ “soulful” and “authentic” mountain sound can all be connected to commercial efforts or technological innovations such as radio (pp. 1–3, 49). Even the shape note hymns the Stanley family sang together, which would seem like the most pristine of vernacular influences, have a relationship to contemporary and commercial music making, as Reid himself alludes to when describing the song “Lonely Tombs” (p. 12).

Chapter 2 details the three years (1949–1952) during which the Stanley Brothers primarily recorded for Columbia Records. This period produced several of the group’s classic hits, including “The White Dove,” “The Fields Have Turned Brown,” and “I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow.” At times during this chapter, Reid’s dogged insistence on moving from recording session to recording session, discussing each track and each musician who came in and out of the group, grows wearisome. The information is useful, however, and there are moments of truly intriguing insight. The first comes as Reid discusses “Uncle Art” Satherley’s scouting and signing of the Stanley Brothers for Columbia. Reid notes that Satherley, an Englishman, was interested in music created “on the back roads and byways of America,” making it “no surprise that Carter and Ralph Stanley appealed to Satherley’s sense of authenticity” (p. 20). Reid stops his analysis there, however; for the bluegrass/country music scholar, this moment calls to mind Doc Watson’s adaptation to Ralph Rinzler’s search for the authentic. The second moment that left...