Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Music of the Stanley Brothers by Gary B. Reid

Posted by Rebecca Brendel


Reviewed by: Jim Patrick

What I Read: The Music of the Stanley Brothers by Gary B. Reid

Find It @YCLD: Here!

What It's About: As the title indicates, this book is about the music of the legendary bluegrass artists Carter and Ralph Stanley.  The fascinating lives of the Stanleys are illuminated throughout the book, but mostly as background information to the detailed descriptions of the group’s numerous recording sessions held between 1946 and 1966.  Carter Stanley’s alcohol-related death at the age of 41 in 1966 forced “little brother” Ralph to embark on a solo career that spanned nearly 50 additional years!

Gary Reid’s book does not cover Ralph Stanley’s solo recordings, but he exhaustively documents the various eras of the brothers’ recorded output—eras that can be neatly broken down by the music companies that recorded the Stanley Brothers through the years.  The earliest recordings on Rich-R-Tone and Columbia found the brothers singing and playing in an “old-time” country music style reminiscent of the Monroe Brothers.  The Mercury Records years (1953-1958) are generally considered the artistic peak of the Stanley Brothers’ career for a number of reasons:  the high volume of classic original compositions by Carter, the emergence of Ralph’s hard-driving banjo style, and the talented musical support of fiddler Art Stamper and bassist/vocalist George Shuffler.

The last phase of the Stanley Brothers' career was 1958-1966 when they recorded for Starday and King Records.  This period is sometimes discounted by fans and critics due to King’s reputation as a second-rate company and due to the excessive number of non-original and novelty songs that the brothers were forced to record at King.  While it is true that Carter Stanley’s songwriting did decline during this period, as did the richness of his legendary singing voice, many great Stanley Brothers recordings were produced during the King years—particularly in the bluegrass gospel genre.  While not an original composition, the Stanley Brothers’ 1960 version of Albert Brumley’s “Rank Stranger” has been acclaimed as one of the finest recordings in bluegrass history.

What I Thought: In February 2016 Gary Reid presented his one man show, “A Life of Sorrow: The Life and Times of Carter Stanley” at the Yuma Library.  I enjoyed meeting Gary, and I found his performance moving and informative.  Mr. Reid is acknowledged as the leading authority on the music of the Stanley Brothers.  That expertise is plainly evident in this academic study of their recording career.  The many pages of recording session notes and discographies may be intimidating (or boring) to readers who are not familiar (or obsessed) with bluegrass music.  However, the book is well-written in an accessible style, and by skimming through the recording session charts and focusing on the narrative sections of the book, bluegrass fans and anyone who attended Mr. Reid’s library program will rewarded with many interesting stories behind the songs of this great musical group.

Readalikes: Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life of Bill Monroe by Richard D. Smith

Or look this book up on NoveList!

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