Man of Constant Sorrow by Ralph Stanley: a review

Ralph Stanley looks back at an extremely active life. This book’s more literary than I probably expected; not sure how much of that is Stanley and how much is his co-author. And it’s interesting in unexpected ways.

The first half of the book is mostly about his childhood and early career; we learn details about people and places associated with the Stanley Brothers in considerable detail. The second half of the book is less about Stanley’s life than about things that interest him–there are chapters on Curly Ray Cline, on Bill Monroe, on “professionals and amateurs” that turns out to be largely about John Duffey, on his failed electoral campaigns, and on his courtship and marriage to Jimmi. Interesting stuff, often enough, but the detailed focus changes at mid-book.

The omissions are interesting. There’s practically no mention about his first marriage, and only cursory mentions of his children (even of Ralph II, who was part of his touring band for a long time). After Carter’s death, there’s really little about the mechanics and logistics of running a band; would be interesting to hear Ralph discuss that, since he’s done that longer than almost anyone. That he didn’t include such a discussion is this book’s greatest disappointment.

A worthwhile and often delightful memoir. Well worth your time if you’re interested in Ralph’s music, or in Appalachian culture.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

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