While growing up in rural Virginia in the shadow of his beloved Clinch Mountains, a young Ralph Stanley was given his choice of presents to celebrate his 11th birthday: a pig or a banjo. Thankfully for the history of American country and bluegrass music, he chose the latter, even learning to play it in the "clawhammer" style from his music-loving mother.
Ralph Stanley first began performing - not surprisingly - in church, where his take on the simple, a cappella hymn style favored by the Primitive Baptist sect led the congregation to dub him "The Boy with the Hundred Year Old Voice." Stanley traces his musical journey from those mountains and success with brother Carter as the Str Carter's 1966 death and modern resurgence via the soundtrack/tour for O Brother Where Art Thou
. Stanley's ethereal and stunning a cappella version of "O Death" has sent chills up the spine of even the most jaded of hipsters.
Co-author Dean does an excellent job of putting the words down in Stanley's voice, and the details that the 82-year-old picker recalls - from specific concert dates decades ago to long-lost players - is astounding, if a bit too detailed. But what makes the book more than just a music bio are the sections in which Stanley discusses the social, geographical and religious heritage of the people he grew up with and played for.
The fact that Stanley still resides not too far from where he was born speaks volumes about his connection to his sense of place. It is inexcusable, though, that the book does not feature a photo section. Surprisingly, for a man usually cited as a founding father of bluegrass music, Ralph Stanley completely eschews the moniker.
"I don't play bluegrass. I never have, really," he writes, citing instead Bill Monroe and a scant handful of others as the genre's true practitioners. He prefers to call his simple songs of love, God and murder (no electric amplification or drums, please!) just "old-time mountain music," a style from which he has never veered in more than six decades.
Gotham Books, 452 pp., $27.50.