In the tight-lipped tradition of Greta Garbo, J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley has been verbally parsimonious in disclosing details about his life and art—until now. Here he opens up, talking freely about his shadowy absentee father, his immensely gifted but hard-drinking older brother, Carter, and the heart-wrenching ordeal of trying to make a living playing a kind of music too few people wanted to hear.

Born in 1927 in southwestern Virginia, Stanley was steeped in ancient folksongs, hymns, parlor ballads and the sounds of a newer, jazzier string band music being perfected by the Kentuckian Bill Monroe, who dubbed this emerging genre “bluegrass.” The day he returned from military service in 1946, he and Carter formed the Stanley Brothers band with Carter as front man and chief songwriter. Over the next 20 years, the Stanley Brothers achieved a stature within the bluegrass community that rivaled Monroe’s.

Then, in 1966, Carter finally drank himself to death and in so doing thrust his younger brother into the spotlight. In that role, Stanley mentored such formidable young talents as Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley and Larry Sparks, even as he was carving out his own reputation as a stunningly emotional vocalist. Although long revered by bluegrass fans, Stanley didn’t become a superstar until he was featured on the soundtrack album for the Coen Brothers’ 2000 movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

His chilling a cappella rendition of “Oh Death” on that album won him a Grammy and sparked two successful arena tours.

As fascinating as Stanley’s personal revelations are, this book’s greatest value lies in his documentary-like descriptions of the hardships rural musicians faced in the 1940s and ’50s—crowded cars, band rivalries, long and dangerous roads and hand-to-mouth living. It’s little wonder then that Stanley can say at age 82, “I ain’t afraid to die, but I am scared of what would happen if my voice were to fail me . . . because singing is really all I’ve got to give anymore.”

Edward Morris writes from Nashville.

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