Monday, July 19, 2010

Mountain Music

I tremble to say so in Texas, but I don't care much for country music. Of course I like Willie and the Dixie Chicks, and I like a couple of the really big hits like "Stand by Your Man" and "Crazy" and... um... that might be it. I'm a Yankee.

So imagine my surprise in 2000 when, after seeing the Coen brothers' old-timey country-music fest O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I found myself driving straight to Waterloo Records to buy the soundtrack.

The album's popularity also surprised Dr. Ralph Stanley, the 70-year-old musician featured on O Brother. He and his brother Carter had had some success after World War II as the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys--they'd had some flush times and made records for a national audience--but they'd never hit it really big like Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Even I had heard of Flatt and Scruggs, but until O Brother, I had never heard of Ralph and Carter Stanley.

Dr. Stanley has written a wonderful book (with Eddie Dean) about being a kid in Appalachia and learning music handed down through generations; about writing songs in the car speeding down a dark road to a play date, arguing with promoters, dealing with troublesome band members, finding musicians whose talents blend into the sound he wants, and what happened to his career when Elvis sang "Blue Moon of Kentucky". He talks about losing loved ones and staying true to the old-time music and winning a Grammy at age 70 for his rendition of "O Death" in O Brother.

Man of Constant Sorrow: The Life and Times of a Music Legend recounts 82 years of writing and playing mountain music, but you don't have to be a fan of the music to admire the book. Dr. Stanley would understand, I think. After all, he doesn't care much for rock and roll.


Kathryn said...

Nice post, Tim!

I still listen to that soundtrack a lot.

And I have a CD by Chris Thomas King, blues guitarist who was in the movie. APL has various titles of him solo and in compilations. Check him out!

Anonymous said...

love the post....

1)The Stanley Brothers are specifically "Bluegrass". Definitely an offshoot of Country, but quite different than say, George Jones or Wille Nelson.

2)"Blue Moon of Kentucky" was written by Bill Monroe, not Ralph Stanley. (Yes, when Elvis covered it, Monroe supposedly made a lot of money. Not sure how this would have affected Ralph Stanely, unless maybe Bluegrass as a whole was brought a little more into the mainstream.)


tim snead said...

Kathryn: Thanks! I'll look for King. I must have seen him on Down from the Mountain, the tour the O Brother musicians made (library owns the DVD at Windsor Park).

Anon: Thanks for the love! I don't mean to be contrary after a nice compliment, but Dr. Stanley (honorary, but he prefers it) doesn't think of his music as bluegrass, although I would. In fact, the working title for this post was "Bluegrass". But he's the expert and I defer.

Re: Elvis: I wasn't clear. I didn't mean Ralph Stanley made money off the song, I meant that A.E. (After Elvis) his career took a nosedive, like so many musicians' did.