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Legendary bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley shares his ups and downs in his new autobiography.

AFTER MORE THAN 60 YEARS AS a musician, bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley is pretty confident that he’s in the right profession.

“I think God gives everybody a gift. He saw a purpose for me, and that was to sing. And that’s a good thing, ’cause I don’t know of another thing that I’m qualified to do,” he says, laughing.

At 82, Dr. Ralph Stanley, as he’s widely known (the title is courtesy of his honorary doctorate degree from Lincoln Memorial University), is one of the true living giants of American music; his remarkable journey has taken him from the tiny hamlets of rural Virginia to concert stages around the world. Stanley recounts his life story in his newly published autobiography, Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times (Gotham Books, $28).

Coauthored by music journalist and fellow Virginian Eddie Dean, the book begins with Stanley’s early life and his start in the music business shortly after World War II, when Stanley formed the Clinch Mountain Boys with his brother Carter. Together, they found success with classics like “The White Dove,” “Rank Stranger,” and their signature song, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” before Carter’s passing in 1966 brought an end to their act. Forced to go solo, Stanley shifted his focus to even more traditional mountain songs while helping to launch the careers of future country stars like Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley, who got their starts in Stanley’s road band.

Man of Constant Sorrow
brims with Stanley’s homespun wit as he recalls vivid tales of the church and sawmills of his youth, which served as the wellsprings for the Stanley brothers’ halting, soulful music; their days with King Records, when they were label-mates with soul legend James Brown; and the personal struggles Stanley faced after his brother’s alcohol-related death.

For Stanley, the process of penning the memoir forced him to take a hard look back at his life. “I tried to do it all by memory,” he says. “I tried to think and remember a little at a time. When I started out, I didn’t think I’d still be making music 60 years later. I never would’ve dreamed all of what’s happened to me.”

Perhaps the most unpredictable twist in Stanley’s long career came in 2001, when producer T-Bone Burnett tapped him to appear on the soundtrack to the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? His a cappella reading of the haunting “O Death” in the film earned him a Grammy and helped turn the mainstream public onto bluegrass music. That his success has continued later in life is something that doesn’t surprise Stanley, who feels that his ability to sing has only gotten better and richer with time. “As years went on, I got more experience and tried to do better,” he says. “You never get too old to learn. … I could probably still stand to learn a few things.”

And though Stanley’s schedule has slowed down somewhat in recent years -- he still averages two or three shows a week during his most active periods -- he doesn’t see his road coming to an end anytime soon. “I like the music. I like to sing for people. I would miss it bad if I stopped,” he says. “As long as the good Lord keeps me able to travel some, I intend to do that. When he’s ready for me to quit, I think he’ll let me know.”