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Lonesome Melodies - The Lives and Music of the Stanley Brothers

Lonesome Melodies

The Lives and Music of the Stanley Brothers

By David W. Johnson
Series: American Made Music Series

Paperback : 9781628460575, 304 pages, 16 b&w photographs, February 2014
Hardcover : 9781617036460, 304 pages, 16 b&w photographs, January 2013

The first biography of two integral bluegrass innovators and touchstones of old-time country music's authenticity


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.


"Two of the most influential first-generation bluegrass musicians, Carter and Ralph Stanley, while an excellent rhythm guitarist and banjoist, respectively, may be the most admired singers of the style. Ralph’s testimony about his career, Man of Constant Sorrow (2009), is a great autobiography but understandably a personal document. Johnson’s account of the brothers’ 20-year shared career, terminated by Carter’s 1966 death, is a scholarly but unstuffy complement to Ralph’s testimony. Less biographical than historical, it accounts for how the brothers got started in music, developed as professionals, and presented their music in concert and on records. The venues they used (radio, records, touring, and, finally, dedicated bluegrass festivals), the revolving cast of other musicians who constituted their band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, and the songs selected for shows and records—Johnson delves deeply into these to evoke the extraordinarily hectic, meagerly paying professional lives they led while marrying, making families, moving houses, and pursuing the rest of a normal existence. It’s safe to say that staunch bluegrass fans will love this book."

- Ray Olson, Booklist

"Between 1946 and 1966, Carter and Ralph Stanley helped make bluegrass a vital new American music. In Lonesome Melodies historian David Johnson generously uses the voices of their family, neighbors, band members, and others who knew or met them, while also drawing on a wealth of documentary sources, to write a full and engaging account of their early lives and careers together. The reader meets their father, Lee, witnesses A. P. Carter through the brothers' eyes, learns how their iconic songs were crafted, and much more. I enjoyed reading it and learned from it. It's a must-read for bluegrass music fans."

- Neil V. Rosenberg, author of Bluegrass: A History and Transforming Tradition

"Lonesome Melodies: The Lives and Music of the Stanley Brothers is an intimate portrait of two brothers who indelibly shaped the bluegrass sound. David Johnson describes Carter and Ralph Stanley's ancestral roots in eighteenth-century Virginia, their endless performances in high school auditoriums, and their radio broadcasts with loving care. This book is a rare, beautiful tale about a distinctly American music that touches the heart."

- William R. Ferris, author of Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues