Saturday, March 23, 2013

David W Johnson “Lonesome Melodies: The Lives and Music of the Stanley Brothers” (University Press of Mississippi, 2013)

There’s a curious void at the center of Lonesome Melodies.  Strangely enough for a biography, that void is the Stanley Brothers themselves.  

The strength of Lonesome Melodies is the facts themselves.  Johnson does a great job documenting session information, myriad band lineup changes, the migratory nature of the early bluegrass music scene, and other minutiae of the Stanleys career.

Unfortunately this is all delivered in a dry academic tone, making the reading experience less than enjoyable.  At times it is like reading a more fleshed out version of the liner notes to a Bear Family box set.

More egregious, however, is the lack of insight into the subjects of the book itself.  If the purpose of the book is to function as anything more than a (very expensive) discography, then the reader should gain a greater understanding of the Stanley Brothers.  Other than reaffirming the impression of Ralph Stanley as “tight lipped”, I can’t say that I have any additional insight into Ralph or Carter as men.
There were numerous opportunities to examine their character through anecdotal evidence, yet those incidents were slighted and quickly moved away from.  For example, in the early days of the band, the Stanley Brothers apparently aggressively stole material from other more successful acts (most notably Bill Monroe).  This caused serious rifts with other musicians.  Yet Johnson refuses to examine this behavior.  The facts are presented, and nothing more.  What were the other musicians’ feelings about this?   How did they see the Stanley Brothers in light of this behavior?  Why did they do it?  And how and why were these rifts eventually healed?

Making this facts without interpretation approach worse is Johnson’s tone.  He writes in a dry academic style, which while useful in making the details clear also makes Lonesome Melodies a long slog of a read.  This is not a book that will captivate readers not already fascinated with the music of the Stanley Brothers.

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