Most people trace the dawn of recorded country music back to the famous Bristol sessions of 1927, from which Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family rose to prominence. While I am not sure that even Ernest V. Stoneman (May 25, 1893 – June 14, 1968) represents the dawn of recorded country music, he has a far better claim to it than do Jimmie Rodgers and the Carters.
Born in 1893 in Carroll Country, Virginia, near the mining community of Iron Ridge, Ernest Van Stoneman was raised by his father and three cousins who taught him traditional Blue Ridge Mountain songs. Ernest married Hattie Frost in 1919. He and his wife set about having a family, eventually having 23 kids, of which 13 lived to be adults. Stoneman worked at various jobs and played music for his own entertainment. He was a talented musician who could play (and make) a variety of instruments, including banjo, guitar, fiddle and autoharp, although the autoharp would become his trademark during his recording career.
Legend has it that Stoneman heard a recording by Henry Whittier, a popular artist of the time and a friend of her father’s (according to daughter Roni), and swore he could sing better. In 1924 he traveled to New York and received a recording contract. The first single, “The Sinking of the Titanic”, was issued on the Okeh label and became the biggest hit he ever had. Sales figures for the 1920s are not terribly reliable, but several sources have sales pegged at four million copies sold – a remarkable total for the time and certainly one of the biggest hits of the 1920s.
While Stoneman never again reached the heights of his first single, he remained a prominent artist. It was at his urging that Ralph Peer brought his portable recording equipment to Bristol in 1927 where Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family were discovered. In fact, it was Ernest Stoneman’s fame that was used in advertising as a lure to get talent to make the trip to Bristol, and indeed, Stoneman recorded some sides himself at those sessions for Victor (later to be known as RCA Victor). Through the end of the decade he recorded over 200 sides for a variety of record labels.
Like millions of Americans, Ernest Stoneman lost everything during the Great Depression, a time of world-wide economic hard times that began in 1929, grew worse during the early Roosevelt years, and finally ended when WWII hit full stride. During this period Stoneman moved his wife and nine children (at the time) to Washington, D.C. They remained there and lived in poverty while Stoneman worked odd jobs and tried to re-establish his musical career before he finally found work at a munitions plant. Veronica (Roni) Stoneman tells a story of her father handcrafting a few instruments, placing them on the bed and telling the kids to leave them alone, knowing that kids would become interested in the forbidden fruit. By the end of the 1940s, several of his children had become quite talented musicians. Among them were:
•Patsy (b.1925) — carries on the autoharp tradition and sings. She did not join the family band until after Pop’s death in 1968.
•Gene (1930-2005) — vocals and guitar.
•Scotty (1932-1973) — regarded by many as the greatest fiddle player ever.
•Donna (b.1934) — is regarded by many as one of the two or three greatest mandolin players ever. Legendary mandolin player Jethro Burns called her the greatest mandolin player on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
•Jimmy (1937-2002) — an excellent singer and bass player.
•Roni (b.1938) — youngest daughter of Pop Stoneman and a great banjo player, singer and comedienne.
•Van (1940-1995) — an excellent singer and guitar player.
All of them were proficient on more than one musical instrument. Stoneman’s other kids had musical talent and performed occasionally, although the seven listed above were the ones most interested in performing.
By the end of the 1940s, Ernest Stoneman and his family band were performing as The Stoneman Family. In 1956, he appeared on the NBC television game show The Big Surprise and won $10,000. That same year, a group composed mostly of his children and calling itself the Blue Grass Champs, were winners on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts show on CBS TV. During this period Stoneman, by now know as Pop, performed occasionally, but his offspring got their music careers in full gear. The Blue Grass Champs made guest appearances on Jimmy Dean’s TV Show at Turner’s Arena in Washington, DC, and worked with Patsy Cline, Roy Clark, Billy Grammer, Grandpa Jones and various other artists. When Pop retired from the munitions plant at the end of the 1950s, he rejoined his offspring and the band was again billed as The Stonemans.
Ernest and his children took full advantage of the late 50s-early 60s folk revival, appearing on multiple television shows, including The Jimmy Dean Show on ABC, and at numerous folk music festivals. In 1962, they appeared on the Grand Ole Opry, and in 1966, the group hosted its own television show, Those Stonemans. The following year, they won the first CMA award as Vocal Group of the Year. I would argue that the award started at the top and never reached that height again – at least in terms of sheer musical talent.
Unfortunately, sustained fame and recognition reached Pop Stoneman late in life. He was 74 years old when the CMA award came, by which time his health was already declining. He continued to perform with the group until shortly before his death in June 1968.
Subsequent to Pop Stoneman’s death, his family continued performing. His son, Scott, had left the family band in the early 1960s and became a member of The Kentucky Colonels, a seminal newgrass group, but various combinations of the others continued to perform for the next 30+ years, recording for RCA, CMH, and some independent labels.
Of Pop Stoneman’s children, only daughters Donna, Roni, and Patsy are still alive. Donna has been in the ministry for many years. Roni is still an active performer, a very gracious and funny lady who gained great fame through her many years on television’s Hee Haw where she played the part of Ida Lee and sang and played banjo. Patsy recently released an album of Pop Stoneman’s songs, which is available online.
Until recently, there hadn’t been a lot of Stoneman material available during the CD era, either of Pop Stoneman or of the Stoneman Family. The good news is that a 2 CD set, The Unsung Father of Country Music, was issued to celebrate Pop Stoneman’s recent (and long overdue) induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. This CD and one or two other CDs of material from 1957-1962 (including 28 Big Ones), from 1957-1962 issued by King or Starday are available at Amazon and the Ernest Tubb Record Shop.
In 2007, the OMNI label issued a CD titled In All Honesty which features most of the selections from the three albums the Stonemans issued on RCA immediately following Pop Stoneman’s death. The following year OMNI issued All In The Family, which covers the MGM years (the period which includes Pop Stoneman’s last recordings). Collector’s Choice Music and the Ernest Tubb Record Shop have this album available as do several other websites.
If you happen to catch Roni Stoneman perform live, she has several CDs of herself and Bluegrass Champs material for sale. Her sister, Patsy Stoneman Murphy, recently recorded a CD of Pop Stoneman’s songs.
A few years ago the three surviving Stoneman siblings Patsy, Donna and Roni issued the album Patsy, Donna & Roni. This album finds them performing some old songs, mostly associated with Pop Stoneman. In May 2012 a second such project was released, titled The Stoneman Tradition. More information on both of these discs and purchase information can be found here.
The Stoneman Family recorded for a number of labels during the 1950s and 1960. Albums billed as the Bluegrass Champs may or may not feature Pop Stoneman, and usually will have some non-Stoneman family members in the band.
The Stonemans recorded for Starday during the early 1960s. Selections from these albums sometimes show up on various King bluegrass reissue anthologies. Pop’s vocals are fairly prominent on these albums.
Albums recorded for Sunset and MGM will feature Pop Stoneman taking the lead vocal on one or two songs per album – these tracks usually will have an autoharp introductory riff followed by Pop’s vocals on very traditional material. The rest of the group was quite innovative and would tackle material by the likes of Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, and modern Nashville writers, as well as some older material, usually walking the line between bluegrass and country. If you find a copy of any of the Sunset or MGM material in good condition, buy it–you’ll like it. The last album to feature Pop Stoneman was titled The Great Stonemans and was issued a few months after his death in 1968. It features the biggest hit the Stoneman Family ever had, “Christopher Robin.”
The albums on RCA were recorded after Pop Stoneman’s death. While the family continued to record some of the older songs, the general sound and repertoire became more modern on these albums. After RCA, like many other veteran acts, the Stonemans went out to CMH, a safe harbor for artists that the major labels let “out to pasture.” Albums on CMH will feature some of Pop Stoneman’s grandchildren on some selections, but surprise – the grandkids have talent, too.
Scotty Stoneman appears on some Stoneman Family recordings (especially those on Starday), many recordings issued under the name of the Blue Grass Champs, and can be heard on several Kentucky Colonels collections. Bela Fleck called him the Jimi Hendrix of fiddle players and Jerry Garcia called him the Charlie Parker of fiddlers.
The Stonemans: An Appalachian Family and the Music that Shaped Their Lives by Ivan M. Tribe (University of Illinois Press, 1993)
Pressing On: The Roni Stoneman Story by Roni Stoneman as told to Ellen Wright (University of Illinois Press, 2007)
I have read Tribe’s book; it’s a fascinating read. Roni’s book is about her own life, but includes many stories about her father and siblings. It’s a delightful read and very funny in places, but if you ever met Roni Stoneman, you would expect no less.