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Lonesome Melodies

The Lives and Music of the Stanley Brothers

David W. Johnson

Publication Year: 2012

Carter and Ralph Stanley--the Stanley Brothers--are comparable to Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs as important members of the earliest generation of bluegrass musicians. In this first biography of the brothers, author David W. Johnson documents that Carter (1925-1966) and Ralph (b. 1927) were equally important contributors to the tradition of old-time country music. Together from 1946 to 1966, the Stanley Brothers began their careers performing in the schoolhouses of southwestern Virginia and expanded their popularity to the concert halls of Europe.

In order to re-create this post-World War II journey through the changing landscape of American music, the author interviewed Ralph Stanley, the family of Carter Stanley, former members of the Clinch Mountain Boys, and dozens of musicians and friends who knew the Stanley Brothers as musicians and men. The late Mike Seeger allowed Johnson to use his invaluable 1966 interviews with the brothers. Notable old-time country and bluegrass musicians such as George Shuffler, Lester Woodie, Larry Sparks, and the late Wade Mainer shared their recollections of Carter and Ralph.

Lonesome Melodies begins and ends in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. Carter and Ralph were born there and had an early publicity photograph taken at the Cumberland Gap. In December 1966, pallbearers walked up Smith Ridge to bring Carter to his final resting place. In the intervening years, the brothers performed thousands of in-person and radio shows, recorded hundreds of songs and tunes for half a dozen record labels, and tried to keep pace with changing times while remaining true to the spirit of old-time country music. As a result of their accomplishments, they have become a standard of musical authenticity.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi


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pp. 1-7


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pp. vii-9

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pp. ix-xi

It takes a community to write a biography. That much I learned during my ten-year effort to revisit the lives and music of two brothers from southwestern Virginia whose legacy will last many times longer than their twenty professional years together. I am grateful to editor and folklorist Judith McCulloh for her early encouragement of this project...

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1. The Hills of Home

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pp. 3-17

On a map, the far southwest corner of Virginia is shaped like a wedge. Driven into a mountainous region of the mid-Atlantic states, the wedge divides West Virginia to the north, Kentucky to the northwest, and Tennessee to the south and southwest. To the southeast, beneath fourfifths of Virginia (from the city of...

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2. Many Days of My Childhood

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pp. 18-27

The event that ended the relative normalcy of the “many days of my childhood” that Carter later would idealize in song was Lee Stanley’s leaving the family when Carter was 13 or 14 and Ralph was 12. Lee and Lucy had been married for fifteen years. Lucy was 53. She and the two boys never got over the fact that Lee...

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3. Brothers in Arms

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pp. 28-39

During the Civil War, residents of far southwestern Virginia found themselves pressured to declare their loyalty to either the Union or the Confederacy. Though connected in 1856 by a 204-mile railroad extension from Bristol, Tennessee, to Lynchburg, Virginia, that proceeded east to the future Confederate...

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4. A Band on the Run

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pp. 40-48

The weather in southwestern Virginia can be very pleasant during October. The leaves turn yellow, orange, and bright red, and there is an invigorating chill in the night air while the days remain warm enough to be comfortable. In 1946, as the Greyhound bus carrying Ralph Stanley hummed southward through...

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5. Radio, Records, and Copyrights

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pp. 49-56

Three elements crucial to the development of country music in the 1920s through 1950s were the rapid growth of radio, the popularity of phonograph records, and the availability of traditional song material that could be copyrighted. Each element provided an additional source of income for performers and the nascent...

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6. “Come on Along, Join in the Song”

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pp. 57-63

A farmer living in radio station WCYB’s listening area toward the end of December 1946 or in January and February 1947 would have completed much of his work by noontime, since winter was removed from the planting and harvesting seasons. He would be more than ready to sit down for his noon meal and a break...

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7. Making Record Time

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pp. 64-70

As the wax disc revolved under the cutting lathe, the wax cut by the lathe spun away from the disc in strips called “swarf.” Wade Mainer remembered the swarf because when he and Mainer’s Mountaineers recorded in the 1930s, the lathe stood near the musicians. “It was kind of like a turntable,” he said.1 “The...

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8. In Search of a Sound

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pp. 71-92

In the language of baseball, the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys hit a home run in their first time at bat. Farm and Fun Time created an immediate demand for personal appearances, and their records sold well in the hardscrabble environs of southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Soon after cutting...

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9. Lonesome Melodies

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pp. 83-96

In the background was the whine of the tour bus changing gears. In the foreground were the voices of an enthusiastic young interviewer and a tired-sounding country performer. Musician and folklorist Mike Seeger was interviewing Carter Stanley as they toured England and Europe together in March 1966. Seeger was a founding member of the revivalist old-time music group, the New Lost...

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10. The Road Turns Rocky

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pp. 97-106

Expectations ran high for the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys as they drove to Shreveport, Louisiana, in the fall of 1950 to join the cast of radio station KWKH’s Louisiana Hayride. In the four years that had passed since Ralph had ridden the bus back to southwestern Virginia after being discharged from the army, he and Carter had accomplished things they only could have...

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11. Hard Times

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pp. 107-125

Among rolling hills and along winding river valleys, the narrow country roads that traversed the southern Appalachians could be dangerous. On the precipitous ridges where Carter and Ralph Stanley grew up, a vehicle sliding off the road into a deep ravine might not be found for weeks. In 1951, a car heading northwest...

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12. Mercury Falling

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pp. 126-142

During the 1930s, the ultra-powerful signal of border radio station XERA carried all the way from Mexico into Canada. In the red brick tenements of Chicago’s South Side, a young boy listened with curiosity to XERA. Broadcast from a transmitter in Villa Acuña, Coahuila, across the border from Del Rio, Texas, XERA was...

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13. Suwannee to Cincinnati

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pp. 143-157

When Arnold Brim was a boy growing up in Live Oak, Florida, his parents sent him to what he called “music school.” He did not want to spend the time to learn how to read sheet music, but his teacher happened to have an old guitar. “Every time he would put it down, I would pick it up,” Brim recalled.1 “I would hit a note, and I thought it would sound like what people were singing. At least that’s...

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14. Folk Tales

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pp. 158-173

In 1954, 21-year-old Mike Seeger worked in the kitchen of Mount Wilson State Hospital near Pikesville, Maryland, a tuberculosis sanitarium north of Baltimore. He was there as a conscientious objector performing alternative service. Born in New York City, Mike was the child of parents who trained as classical musicians...

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15. The Well-Known Stanley Brothers

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pp. 174-186

In the late 1950s, the band member whose job it was to introduce Carter and Ralph on stage would announce them as “the well-known Stanley Brothers.” After a dozen years on the road, the brothers earned the right to claim that modest level of distinction. “Famous” would have been better, but that would have...

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16. Coast to Coast

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pp. 187-204

Above the squealing brakes and honking horns of New York City traffic, Japanese businessman Tatsuo Arita thought he heard a voice announcing a bluegrass show that night. This was not the sort of information that Arita expected to drift through the open window of the midtown apartment where he was staying...

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17. Starving Out

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pp. 205-221

By October 1963 Carter and Ralph had been professional musicians for seventeen years. They had something to show for their efforts: Carter owned a modest house and Ralph a small farm. With help from the earnings of their wives, they were able to support their families. Yet the financial pressure was constant, and...

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18. What the Doctor Said

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pp. 222-236

Bruce William Mongle did not fit the mold of how a doctor should look or act. When he was five, his mother taught him to play clawhammer banjo; when he was older he rode bucking broncos. He chewed tobacco and spat juice wherever he could while visiting patients in the Bristol Memorial Hospital. “Whenever there...

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19. Smith Ridge

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pp. 237-250

After Ralph and George had left Carter with Lucy Smith Stanley on Smith Ridge, his hemorrhaging resumed. The family called the ambulance to take him to Bristol Memorial Hospital, where the medical staff in the emergency room and intensive care unit gave him frequent blood transfusions to keep him alive.1 When...


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pp. 251-272


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pp. 273-277


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pp. 278-282


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pp. 283-299

E-ISBN-13: 9781621030515
E-ISBN-10: 1621030512
Print-ISBN-13: 9781617036460

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2012