backstage (2006-40)

My Grass is Blue

Man of Constant Sorrow tells a tale of two Stanleys

by Heather Downs

Man of Constant Sorrow isn’t really a play of sorrow. This Barter Theatre traveling production is more about two brothers’ journey through struggles of fortune and misfortune, which lead to their ultimate success in a music genre that still lives on today. It’s not a remake of Walk the Line ; this story has Knoxville roots—bluegrass and gospel in particular.

“We thought it would be a wonderful fit for Knoxville since the music goes with this region,” says Stephanie Piper, director of Development and Public Relations at Volunteer Ministry Center . All ticket proceeds will go to this non-profit agency, which will use the donations to serve the poor and homeless of Knoxville.

Playwright Douglas Pote, who also wrote the Barter production Keep on the Sunny Side , based his characters on real-life brothers Carter and Ralph Stanley. The legendaries were no ordinary musicians. They were known to be among the founders of bluegrass music. Their 1992 induction into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor proves they’re some kind of special.

The play opens not in the bluegrass-inspired Appalachians, but in the boonies of rural southwest Virginia. The brothers were natives of Dickerson County, a countryside between the Kentucky and Tennessee borders that was known to be a tough area to make a living.

Bluegrass was swimming beneath Carter’s and Ralph’s veins from the get-go, as they listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the local radio, as well as the likes of the Monroe Brothers and Mainer’s Mountaineers. Hey, the brothers enjoyed a little honky-tonk, too.

But in the late 1950s, bluegrass competed with rock ’n’ roll and battled unpopularity. At the time, the Stanleys could have chosen to change their genre to meet that of ’50s heartthrob Elvis Presley or boogie-singing Jerry Lee Lewis, but they chose the road not taken and continued on with bluegrass.

This is what the play is about, said Piper, who also writes the Midpoint column for Metro Pulse . “There’s a lot in it about family and loss and perseverance in pursuit of meeting your goals.”

It was no easy road. Nick Piper, who plays Carter, said the brothers jumped through many hurdles, including one brother’s alcoholism and the other’s ambition to continue a musical dream that would live on even after his brother’s death.

The brothers were determined to pull bluegrass up to chart-topping success. They traveled from concert to concert, city to city, and state to state not in a six-digit-costing, groupie-loving, traditional band van, but in their very own car—just the two of them.

“Carter had a wife and children. He was away from his family a lot. I think that he really hated that,” said Nick.

The road is a tough life to live, Nick would agree. “I certainly love this music and I love my brother. As an actor, I have to spend a lot of time on the road away from my loved ones. It’s doing what you love to do that lifts you up out of that and that’s what Carter’s music does for him.”

Get ready to celebrate the brothers’ road out of perdition, with an uplifting array of old-time gospel and traditional bluegrass. The band will play past crowd favorites “I’ll Fly Away,” “Angel Band,” “Rank Stranger” and “Harbor of Love.” There are also a couple of distinguished bluegrass musicians, Kenny Kosek, known for his fiddle handiwork, and Buddy Woodward, who will make an appearance as well.

“I hear a lot from people that they don’t like this kind of music, but they like this play,” said Nick. “The music in the play moves the story forward, so people can identify with the characters in the play, with struggling in life and supporting another person.”

Ralph, played by Gill Braswell, is a more timid character who shadows Carter, singing tenor harmony and playing banjo, at first, with the old two-finger style. Carter was known in the ’50s for his distinctive emotional sound. And living a hard life, he and his brother had plenty to sing about.

It has been said Carter could take a happy song and sing it sad, and he could take a sad song and sing it even sadder. He died of liver failure in 1966, but his memory still lives on.

“There’s a lot in the play about staying true to what you believe, staying true in what your gifted talents are. They remained true to the music they believed in,” said Stephanie Piper.                                   

Since his brother’s death, Ralph has revived that ol’ mountain soul music and is still performing today. “Ralph Stanley has seen this show and absolutely loved it,” said Stephanie.

The show is going on a nine-state tour with venues in 19 different cities, from Alabama to Ohio, Kentucky to the Carolinas. Be there to relive the life of the Stanley brothers. m

What: Man of Constant Sorrow