Music Monday: Lonesome Melodies

The first Music Monday of 2013 focuses on Lonesome Melodies: The Lives and Music of the Stanley Brothers. Available next month, this is the first biography of two important contributors to the tradition of old-time country music. Together from 1946 to 1966, the Stanley 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.

Below author David W. Johnson talks about his research, the story behind his book's title, and the performance that inspired him to write the book.

What prompted you to write Lonesome Melodies?

After seeing Ralph Stanley in person at the original “Down from the Mountain” concert in Nashville on May 24, 2000, I was drawn to his music. His solo rendition of the ballad “O Death” on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. As a journalist and academic, I felt that there might be story here that needed to be preserved.

When did you first start working on the book?I began working on the book in a conscious way in fall 2001 when an Emory and Henry colleague, Max Powers, told me about seeing the Stanley Brothers in person at his school around 1949. Max’s recollection was vivid. I realized that quite a few people in southwestern Virginia might recall having seen and heard Carter and Ralph in person and on the radio.
Today there are few people who have direct knowledge of the Stanley Brothers and their music. Whom did you find to interview that could give you first-hand information?

The first person I interviewed in depth was Ralph Stanley, whom I interviewed twice in 2003 and once in 2005. The first two interviews (one by telephone, the other in person) became the basis of my article “Lonesome Melodies: Conversations with Ralph Stanley” that appeared in the Mars Hill Review in 2004.

I also interviewed a number of fans and followers such as Max Powers and Exie Rose; many musicians including George Shuffler, Lester Woodie, and the late Wade Mainer; and others who knew the brothers well such as boyhood friend Carl Hammons. Judith McCulloh, Gary B. Reid, Bill Malone, Neil Rosenberg, Fred Bartenstein, and the late Mike Seeger offered invaluable historical and personal perspectives on the Stanley Brothers

What was the meaning behind the title Lonesome Melodies?

During my first interview with him in spring 2003, Ralph Stanley said that he was drawn more to melodies than lyrics. I asked him what sort of melodies. He said “Lonesome melodies.” That seemed like a fitting title for an article and, later, this book.