Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Lonesome Melodies

Lonesome Melodies: The Lives and Music of the Stanley Brothers

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 304
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Lonesome Melodies
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-051-5
    Subjects: Music, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
    (pp. IX-2)
    David W. Johnson
    (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 four-fifths of Virginia (from the city of Bristol on the Tennessee border to the coast of the Atlantic Ocean) is North Carolina. This five-state region unites sections of the states that share common physical and cultural attributes, two of the most prominent being the presence of mountains and the pervasiveness of music. In the...

    (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 abandoned them to be with a younger woman—a red-haired witch, in the opinion of Carter’s older daughter, Doris.¹ Lee’s departure was both an emotional and financial blow. “The boys nor their beloved mother ever recovered from his desertion...

    (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 capital of Richmond,¹ a sizeable segment of the population would have preferred to remain independent from either side. By character and geography, they were self-sufficient people whose primary loyalty was to the survival of the family in a subsistence environment. But the warring armies forced the mountain folk to choose sides.

    On November 4, 1864,...

    (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 Virginia, the newly discharged veteran must have experienced a deep sense of comfort as he looked out the window to see flat farmland giving way to the gentle foothills and sheltering, tree-studded spines of the Blue Ridge Mountains. One only can imagine the surging emotions the home-loving 19-year-old felt at...

    (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 country music industry. Most important to the career of the Stanley Brothers was their daily presence on a powerful radio station—Bristol, Virginia’s WCYB. Without the regional celebrity they acquired almost overnight on WCYB, Carter and Ralph might have spent years building a following, if they managed to survive in the...

    (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 from the never-ending chores. If he lived near the city of Bristol, whose combined population of 25,000 in the mid-1940s resided on both sides of the Virginia and Tennessee state line, he might have heard about a new radio station going on the air....

    (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 wax was cut into a record, and somebody had to brush the wax to keep it from getting tangled up.” According to Mainer, this was the reason “a lot of those records don’t have that good a sound.” Mainer’s recollections of the wax disc process...

    (pp. 71-82)

    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 Timecreated an immediate demand for personal appearances, and their records sold well in the hardscrabble environs of southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Soon after cutting “Little Glass of Wine,” the group made a much-publicized appearance at Honaker Harness and Saddlery, theFarm and Fun Timesponsor. The owner gave each band member a new pair of black boots to complement sport coats and homburg hats the musicians had bought in Bristol. “Outside the...

    (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 City Ramblers. Carter and Ralph were traveling as a quintet with a fiddler, bassist, and their favorite guitarist, George Shuffler. Rounding out the folk tour roster were the Mamou Cajun Band, led by brothers Cyprien and Adam Landreneau; Kentucky...

    (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’sLouisiana 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 dreamed of in the years prior to their return home. They had organized their own band, starred six days a week on a radio show that could be heard in five states, made their...

  14. 11. HARD TIMES
    (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 from North Carolina toward Coeburn, Virginia, and Smith Ridge where the Stanley families lived would follow Route 421—a circuitous road that ran between Boone, North Carolina, and Mountain City, Tennessee. Passing through Shouns, Tennessee, Route 421 contained a curve that was on the daily route of...

    (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 outside the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission, which regulated the power levels of U.S. stations. A program showcasing the down-home voices and instruments of the Carter Family from Maces Springs, Virginia, captured the boy’s imagination.

    The boy, Larry Ehrlich, became a fan of hillbilly music by...

    (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 what it sounded like to me.” Before long he wanted to become a musician.

    When he was ten, Brim’s parents paid...

  17. 14. FOLK TALES
    (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 and later became experts in the field of folk music: musicologist Charles Seeger and modernist composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. Raised in suburban Washington, D.C., with his piano-playing sister Peggy, Mike grew up listening to Library of Congress field recordings¹ the way other children listened to “The Bear Went over the Mountain.”...

    (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 stretched the truth. Flatt and Scruggs were famous. They traveled from city to city in a bus with their name painted on it and starred in their own television show that was syndicated throughout the south. After a similar number of years, the Stanley Brothers still...

  19. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  20. 16. COAST TO COAST
    (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 in June 1961—but the announcement caught his attention because he was one of a growing number of Japanese bluegrass fans. Looking for the source of the announcement, he spotted a large sedan bearing Virginia license plates. The Stanley Brothers were driving around the city with their public address...

  21. 17. STARVING OUT
    (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 the musicians were starved for work. Around Baltimore, where many transplants from Appalachia had migrated, promoter and radio show host Ray Davis was the man who could provide the work. Davis was well established in the Baltimore country music market. He had begun broadcasting as an amateur...

    (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 was an ashtray and wastebasket during rounds, he would spit into it,” recalled his nephew Joe Mongle.¹ “You always could tell his car because there would be tobacco juice on the driver’s side.” The doctor’s daughter, Mary Bruce Mazza, said of her father, “If you...

  23. 19. SMITH RIDGE
    (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 his condition failed to improve after a week, Doc Mongle decided that he needed to transfer Carter to the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville, 250 miles to the northeast, if he was going to have a chance to live.

    Ralph and George were in Carter’s hospital room in...

  24. NOTES
    (pp. 251-272)
    (pp. 273-277)
    (pp. 278-282)
  27. Index
    (pp. 283-299)