“The Untold Story”
The legend that is, “The Stoneman Family”.
A story told, and repeated by more than a few, albeit at times a personal interpretation built on legend, and sometimes romantic stories, passed on by word of mouth, and or other writers versions of events.
These are the true, personal experiences of living the rollercoaster through life. Of dreams, struggle, hope, endurance towards personal family achievement, and happiness. A motivation to offer to the wider audience, the stories, and experiences through song of the true pioneers. Not only pioneers of the music, but of those that strived to better a life for themselves and family. Also to build a stronger nation that was prepared to meet and endure the demands that made this country free, and a terrific home to be proud of.
This is not intended as an in depth account of all their times. This can be found elsewhere. I offer an honest and truthful sketch of the untold history that surrounds the family. These are the highs, lows, dreams, hopes, and the sometimes tragicomic drama that is of great consequence. Events, and influences yet to be told, as recollected by those who were there. Family, friends, and contemporaries alike. Folks who had first hand knowledge of these events.
To enable, qualify, and understand these events, times and truthful reality, there is a call to offer some brief but significant background.
A Personal Appraisal
I was born in England, but from an early age was absorbed by, and followed what little there was in the UK at that time of traditional Country Music, and its performers. I wanted to know more! Now some may say, “what does an Englishman know of our tradition, and of our music”.
Well let me answer as best I can. From that early age I was fascinated by the Americas. Having watched on TV and movies the likes of, The Beverley Hillbillies, Davy Crocket, Daniel Boone, etc, and of course the overabundance of Wild West shows, I understood then that these were “Hollywood”, but with a basis of fact somewhere in there. In my formative years of the 50’s there was little knowledge, or understanding of “America” or it’s peoples. Mainly through movies and TV shows. Again Hollywood’s influence did nothing to offer the real picture. For the reader to have a better understanding of the times, and perceptions of the British, then Alistair Cook’s “America” offers a more generous insight.
I then began studying the Americas, its beginnings and it’s peoples. This inevitably led to the search through the early colonists and pioneers to research the history of the music and it’s origins. Although I admit that there is more to learn, I feel I am more than qualified to relate the ”Stonemans” story, of their contribution and place in music folklore, as it was and is
The Americas, said by some historians, to have been discovered by the adventurer, Christopher Columbus. An individual of ill repute, who made landfall on the islands now known as, “The Bahamas”. As history describes, a known notorious executioner, whose only goal in his lust for gold, and other riches, was to plunder and destroy the fabric and culture that was the original settlers of this great country, the “Native Americans”. Others followed with the same objectives. It was only some 100 yrs later that true colonists arrived, those seeking freedom and a new life. These are the peoples that brought their traditions, including the music that shaped this land. “The Pioneers”
As for the politics and founding of this nation, “The United States” I leave to other publications.
The Music and its Traditions
These were and are the sometimes humour or tragic stories of life, love, struggle, loss, and hope, that were not only born out of the experiences of the colonists of this land, but brought with them from England, Ireland, Scotland, and other parts. The sounds, and customs of the mountain peoples of Appalachia, in the home, on the front porch, in the fields and byways. A gathering together of family and friends. To tell stories, sing songs, and to dance away their toil and troubles. To enjoy together the playing of their sometimes home made instruments. “pickin’ and grinnin”, the original “jamming” session.
This was the music, Olde Time, or Mountain Music, and the later coined metaphor, “Bluegrass”. Collectively, traditionally, known as, “Country Music”.
On an historic note. “Bluegrass” was not invented as a genre. Bill Monroe, it was he who personalized the style, and the name he gave to his band. A name that was born out of the mountains of this region. “Kentucky - The Blue Grass State”.
Today, as traditionalists will testify. There has been, and is a trend towards a corruption of time-honoured “Country Music”, That of the so called Progressive or Rock Country. This is an almost complete loss to the genre of individual and talented styles, and endangers the history and traditions of true “Country”. It is for this reason we must make every endeavour to keep alive the customs and memories of the pioneers that shaped this music. It is through them that the so called and upcoming stars of today owe a deep gratitude. Without the spirit of the past and true legends of the genre there would be no Country Music out there to celebrate.
This leads on to refer to, or to enlighten those who seek the origins. Nashville is not the traditional home of Country Music. The birth of the genre was actually in Bristol, Tennessee. Known as, “The Bristol Sessions” back in 1927. Nashville, yes, laid claim to be the so called “Music City”, due to its promotion and music business establishments. As for live music, apart from the Ryman Auditorium, the traditional home of “The Grand Ole Opry”, there were no live entertainers appearing in Nashville until the 60’s. This suitably brings me to “The Stonemans”, their contribution to the genre, and to the Nashville we know today.
Books that are relative in their own right and contribute intensely to the Stoneman story:
“The Stonemans” An Appelation Family and the Music that Shaped Their Lives – Ivan M. Tribe, Publishers: University of Illinois Press
“Pressing On” The Roni Stoneman Story - as told to Helen Wright,
Publishers: University of Illinois Press
The Stoneman Family
A brief but true account of the life and times of “Pop” Stoneman, his influential wife Hattie Frost, and the family they raised. The events that would bring success, struggle, laughter and tears into their lives. The above publications, give accounts and the history of this legendary family. Whilst I do not attempt to rewrite history, I will however relate how events and the influence or actions of others would alter the course of their future.
Ernest “Pop” Stoneman, the unsung musical pioneer, whose contributory recognition into folklore sadly only came after his death, when he was inducted into the “Country Music Hall Of Fame”. The omission of his wife and lifelong significant other Hattie remains a puzzle and a sadness by the family and those who respect her contribution.
“Pop” Stoneman was born Ernest Van Stoneman on 25th May 1893 in Iron Ridge, near what is now the independent city of Galax, bordering Carroll and Grayson Counties, Virginia. He was the son of Elisha and Rebecca Bowers Stoneman. His mother tragically died during childbirth when Ernest only was 3yrs old.
Ernest’s early music influences came from members of his father’s family, though his father, a lay preacher, had no musical interests. Other significant others in his formative years would include John William (Bill) Frost, a gifted fiddle player. Who would unknowingly, eventually, become his future father-in-law. Ernest would learn to play a variety of musical instruments, though the Guitar, Harmonica, and then Autoharp would later become his instrument of choice.
His first experience of recording would change the course of his life forever. This was in 1914 when he borrowed time on a friends recording machine, even though it would be 10 years later when he made his first professional recording.
During these years he would perfect his talent as a musician, playing with friends and family in and around the local area. At this time he also became closely attached to Hattie Frost, an outstanding banjo and fiddle player herself. They eventually married on 10th Nov 1918. Hattie was 18years old and a devout Christian. This would be the beginnings of a musical dynasty. Hattie would give birth to 23 children, of which 15 would live to adulthood. Most were to embrace their parents musical talent, and purpose. They were born to entertain.
Observations and Reflections of Truthfulness
While recognised as a must read historical novel. In the Ivan Tribe narrative of the Stoneman’s lives, he suggests that they contributed to their own subsequent disappointments and loss of favour, within an industry as it transformed from its early beginnings to appeal to a wider audience. He further adds that they had control of their finances, and would make decisions that would add to their failures. Not so.
It must be recorded that if contribution is through being naïve, innocent, sincere, and trusting. Then they “are” responsible. But if, as the truthful record in history testifies, these unassuming, modest folks were unashamedly taken advantage of, betrayed, and then discarded. Then those in whom they entrusted their livelihood are accountable.
This is the story of hard working, naive, mountain people, who were blessed, or smitten, as some would say, with a God given musical talent that they sought to share with others. This as time passed, proved to be not only rewarding, but frustrating, daunting, and tinged with struggle and some sadness.
Two disturbing events in the years that followed would alter the course of “Pop” Stoneman and his family’s journey through life.
1924 – The Legacy Begins
In this year, 1924, Ernest, working as a carpenter in Bluefield, W. Virginia, heard an early recording of a man he knew from his past. That person was, Henry Whitter, who was born near to “Pop”, in Fries, Virginia, and had recorded for Okeh records.
Ernest knew he could, with his talent, compare, and even better the recordings of Whitter. After talking this through with his wife Hattie, he would save what little spare money there was, and travel to New York to achieve his dream. Hattie was to encourage him in this endeavour, saying, “well Ernest, if you know you could do better, then you must go, for a man without a dream is no man atall”
History illustrates the activity of Ernest in these early years which would see him record for many recording labels, which would include Okeh. On this label, in 1924, he would record his own rendition and title, “The Titanic”. Later he was to record for, Edison, on wax cylinders, and Columbia records together with the support of a pioneering producer, Ralph Peer.
“Pop” would go on to realize his dream, of promoting his popularity, and having his many recordings played on radio, and also becoming a widely acclaimed and sought after performer. Although he would record his own rendition alternatively titled, “The Sinking Of The Titanic” for Columbia in 1928, it was the original, recorded on Okeh, that would prove to be his biggest success. This recording was later, after much research, proved to have sold the equivalent of a modern day million seller. This recording, despite alternative claims, was indeed the very first million seller in Country Music.
The future for “Pop” Stoneman and his successes, which reaped fine benefits for his ever growing family, was what appeared to be unstoppable. He was rapidly becoming one of the music businesses greatest successes, and the building of a legend was beginning.
He would also be contributory in introducing the likes of, The Carter Family, Jimmy Rogers, and others into the world of Country Music. These were the legendary “Bristol Sessions” with Ralph Peer. The undisputed time in Country Music’s history, held in Bristol Tennessee, in 1927, where the genre was born. This would mark a milestone in “Ernest “Pop” Stonemans” life forever.
An Unexpected Interruption
Unpredictably, events outside his control would alter his path. A happening that would bring his dreams, and his families world crashing down. His career would end just as everlasting success and recognition appeared to be his destiny.
This event, that would reek havoc, and misery to millions, was a mammoth event in the history of the United States. “The Depression” of 1929 hit like a whirlwind. In Ernest’s life, as with others, it would take all of his possessions, all he had worked and dreamed of. He would lose everything. It would have a greater effect on Ernest, as during his financial rewards, he would make loans and act as guarantor to many of the people he knew in and around the vicinity of Galax. Without his help many would not have been able to realize their dreams of owning property. Of course, when the financial institutions began clawing back money and or property, the biggest axe fell on Ernest. Whilst others deemed not responsible for the debt were able to sit on the property purchased, Ernest Stoneman, suffered the loss of everything he had, and was to be pursued to the point of having to leave the place he once called home.
Ernest had to make a decision to save his family and keep them together. So uprooting, and with what little he could salvage. He, his wife Hattie, and his young children would be forced to leave behind all they had known. A proud man, committed to looking after the people he loved most, his family, he left Virginia, and relocated to the hills around Washington DC. To find work, build a home and a new life for them all. A struggle, that would lead them to living hand to mouth, as poor as they had ever known. A life that would see them move from place to place, Ernest would find work wherever, and whenever he could. Hattie would keep the home, and family together as best she could, with more than a little help from her belief in Jesus, and lots of prayer. Here they had four more surviving children.
Ernest eventually found work as a carpenter, at the Patuxtant Naval Gun Factory. He would move his family into a self built, one roomed house on a lot in Carmody Hills outside DC. (A shack built with old lumber Ernest would acquire from anyone who had it to offer in return for work).
Life After The Turmoil – Highs and Lows
The house in Carmody Hills would become home to Ernest, Hattie and there ever growing family, other local kids would be forever calling and sometimes stay for a while.They would struggle through dire poverty, with Ernest taking whatever work he could find and trying to revive his musical career. The children that survived the toils and struggles of living in very basic conditions, and a diet that mainly consisted of corn and beans would grow. Some would leave the home to make a life for themselves, as others came along. Despite all the hardships there was one deep-rooted love that would overcome and bond the family forever. This was Ernest and Hattie’s keenness to keep music alive within the home.
Ernest would hand make instruments from any old, broken, or discarded pieces he could find. After building, then tuning these instruments and he would go off to work leaving them lying around, giving strict instructions to the children, “do not touch and I want to find them in tune when I return”. He of course knew they would rush to pick them up and want to learn to play them. As time passed most would follow in Daddy and Mammies footsteps, and learn to love the sounds. Music would fill the home, and they as a family would become known in and around DC.
In 1947, the Stoneman Family won a talent contest at Constitution Hall that gave them six months’ exposure on local television. In 1956, "Pop" won $10,000 on the NBC-TV quiz show The Big Surprise and sang on the show as well. That same year, the Blue Grass Champs, a group composed largely of his children, were winners on the CBS-TV program Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, and Mike Seeger recorded "Pop" and Hattie for Folkways.
During this time the family would encounter for the first time, a “Jack Clement”. Jack was a marine, stationed in DC. He would later be known as “Cowboy”. He would ask to be taken where there was good music to be heard, inevitably this was the Stoneman family home in Carmody Hills. He played a little music himself and became a friend and colleague of Scotty Stoneman during his early days in DC.
Ernest retired from labor and the Champs went full-time to become the Stonemans. They did albums for Starday in 1962 and 1963 and in 1964, went to Texas and California, cutting an album for World Pacific, playing at Disneyland, on some network shows and at several Folk festivals. The family were building a positive reputation.
The Family were given the opportunity to appear on the Grand Old Opry. This proved to be a resounding success, but with consequences. Amazingly before going on stage, they were advised to tone down their usual performance, as this was not to be expected from a supporting act. Inevitably the family would give a performance that brought about a 20 minute standing ovation. The first ever achieved by anyone. This did not go down too well with the established stars of the day, those that were due to follow this act. The mutterings of one such was overheard. Quote: “well that is the last we will see of them on the Opry” Needless to say, the sway of the star was such that an invitation to appear again, as a family group, never came their way.
The Stonemans would meet Jack Clement again in the early 60’s, in Beumont Texas, where he had connections with a club and did some producing. The Stonemans played here, after an invitation from Mac Wiseman to support him in shows there. Following years of hard work and unrivaled natural talent the family were becoming admired, fashionable, and sought after as versatile professional entertainers. After seeing how popular the group were, Jack Clement would became more involved in their lives.
A further encounter with Jack Clement would come later, in Nashville. A meeting, and ensuing relationship, that would prove to be some 7 years of toil, exploitation, and betrayal. With little, if any, financial reward for the family. A time, on reflection, of sorrow and regrets.
The Jack Clement Experience
In Ivan Tribes book: “The Stonemans”…. He entitled this chapter in their lives as: “The Golden Years - Again”. An overstatement, sadly based on the exposure the family were to experience, and interpretation of the financial statements available. The real, factual story is not as the reader, or possibly the writer, would be aware of.
The description of events told of this era in the Stonemans lives is an honest account, as reminisced by the ones who were there. It must be recorded at this stage, before reading on, that there is no intent in destroying the character of any person involved. No malice or pursuance of gain is sought. There is just sadness, regrets, and a sense of betrayal which has laid dormant for too long. A need to understand and answer the many times asked, “whatever happened to the Stonemans”.
Again in Ivan Tribes narrative on page 166, quote: “The Stonemans also formalized their management contract with Jack Clement, giving Jack control of their career for a seven year period”. Unquote: A significant event, instigated by Jack Clement himself. An announcement to the family, that mocked the man, Ernest Stoneman, and took advantage of the families innocence. The factual event came about when Jack Clement called a meeting, to be held in the home of a member of the family, to announce his intention.
The family gathered, in the presence of Jack Clement, who was evidently in a state of intoxication, brought on by liquor, and or other substances. Whilst pacing up and down, smoking what was not a conventional cigarette, he declared, quote:
“you are a multi million dollar talent, but being just hillbillies you do not know your worth. You never had nothing in your whole lives. So I am going to look after you. If you had control you would only spend it on things you don’t need, (sniggering) things beginning with an “A”, like “A” house, “A” car or “A” clothes, and things like that. So I will take control, and want you to sign this power of attorney, allowing me to invest your earnings for you, so after the gravy train is over you will have something”
Ernest, was humbled, and being honest, and trustworthy along with the family signed the document. An act, that would only prove as years past, to be a mistake.
Though undoubtedly a talented producer, his management style, lacked in presentation and any real commitment to the Stonemans. Examples of this are illustrated:
Jack Clement appeared to be so intent in offering their talents only to keep them on the road, which would ensure a steady flow of dollars. He neglected to promote them which would bring the long-lasting recognition they deserved. No steady flow of notable recordings were ever made available. Unbeknownst to the Stonemans, they were to be offered again a chance to perform at The Grand Old Opry and other places. Regardless of the exposure these locations would give, Jack Clement turned these opportunities down, as these venues did not pay enough. No appearances that would help promote were acceptable, rather just endless dollar earning shows across America.
Jack Clement concentrated his undoubted production skills to other acts. The Johnny Cash’s, and Charlie Prides etc of this world. Notable inclusions, yes, but these occupied his time and efforts at the expense of the family.
Contrary to other sources, the Stonemans held no control over their finances. This being entrusted to management. The Stoneman family were given a token weekly payment, with the odd bonus, throughout the management connections with Jack Clement. The amount was decided by management. Just enough to live on. All other earnings were to be invested for their future!
The Stonemans continued to be paid this token amount during their successful syndicated TV show years.
On a further occasion. Re: the loss of the recording contract with RCA. The Stonemans having turned up for a planned recording session, were told to go home as their contract had been terminated. It was later through an apologetic Chet Atkins that they discovered they had been “blacklisted” due to the uncontrolled outbursts of Jack Clement to RCA representatives. Also, the fact that Jack Clement, due to his preferences, that would leave him incapable of completing the production of a Stoneman’s album, and therefore to not fulfill his commitments to RCA. This also led to him being discharged of his relationship with RCA.
Jack Clement neglected to advise the Stonemans of the RCA decision.
The Stonemans did not reap any monitory or promotional gains throughout these years. In actual fact this talented family survived their experiences, through hard exhaustive work. A will to satisfy an appreciative audience, and a love of the music. Their audience was, and still remains a partnership, an important heart in their lives.
The highlight of this families career was when they were awarded, for their contribution and unrivaled talents, the CMA’s "Vocal Group of the Year" in 1967. The first ever awarded. Again this was not used as a promotional tool.
Throughout, the family had not advanced professionally, or otherwise during these management years. Later reflections would reveal that they were, and had been in a healthier position prior to Jack Clement. These years of stress took their toll on the family. Struggle, and illness for some, and then the untimely death of “Pop” in 1968.
Due to the obvious lack of commitment, the pressures of having to live without due reward, and the ongoing problems of Jack Clements personal persuasions, the family decided, and advised that the management agreement with Jack Clement would be terminated.
There was without doubt, and as engagement agreements testify, some fruitful monitory gains throughout this managerial time. The Stonemans did not benefit, and as they were to be advised, there were no investments to share at termination. The obvious question arises. “What happened to these investments??
Time For Change
Recovery and attempts to maintain the Stonemans successful status within the industry proved to be difficult. As in the past, time, stress, ill health, and loss would prove to be problematic in reestablishing former prominence.
Though the talents of individual members had not diminished, and were still appreciated, previous events and ever-changing tastes within the Country Music scene led to a decline in bookings for the family as a group. Attempts to rediscover and adopt the successful years when the family and “Pop” Stoneman played Old Time Music, was to a diminishing audience. Ill health within the family would lead to an ever changing line up.
These contributory factors and finances, or lack of, would see the group eventually break up. Individual members of the family, would look to other avenues for employment, satisfaction, and fulfillment. Notibly, Roni would become a success on the Hee Haw show, and always remembered for her individual talents as a virtuoso banjo player.
The three remaining sisters, Patsy, Donna, and Roni still perform together whenever possible. They remain in demand, for the most part by the institutions that preserve Old Time Music and to an audience, old and young alike.
Donna became a devout minister. She has maintained her keenness and talents on the Mandolin.
Patsy, now with a serious back injury following a fall, is semi retired, still enjoys playing, but concentrates her efforts as the recognized historian of the family “Stonemans”.
As for Roni. She is still the active performer, travelling, demonstrating her skills as “The First Lady Of Banjo”. The all round entertainer to appreciative, and enthralled audiences.
Security was confidently anticipated by the Stonemans. This was never to be realized, and the remaining family members live modest lives in Tennessee.
As for “Cowboy” Jack Clement? His current circumstances are commonly known. Success as a producer undoubtedly contributed, but initial investments? How and where they were acquired? I will leave the reader to ponder.
The Stonemans are true “Royalty” within the music industry. A Dynasty never to be rivalled. The most talented and versatile group of musicians ever to grace a stage, they have given pleasure and entertainment to many generations of music lovers. The true “First Family of Country Music”
Daddy, Ernest “Pop” Stoneman, the unsung pioneer of Country Music, that so many owe their careers too. The man who pushed open the gates to an industry and so gave opportunity to a countless number of stars of yesterday and today. A man recognised for his contribution to the genre, although posthumously, by being inducted into The Country Music Hall Of Fame.
Mammy, Hattie (Frost) Stoneman, the rock and stability of the family throughout the highs, lows, crisis’ and hard times. She was the inspiration, who gave spiritual conviction. A devotion to God, and family, that gave the strength of family values to all during difficulties, frustration and loss. A woman, who was a talented musician in her own right, but selflessly supported her husband, and children in their dreams.
This is a family that has contributed so much. Gave hope to many. A group that appreciated their God given talents. Who sacrificed self acclaim and offered moments of happiness to many through their own troubled times. A troop, who appreciated, and embraced their audience as being one and all, “members of the family”. Never to forget their roots, family and friends who helped them along the way.
The Stonemans, honest, warm, and humble.
Truly a troop of the greatest entertainers we will ever hear and see.
It gave me personally a great satisfaction to honour those who were truly the
“First Family Of Country Music”
a tradition that lives on today. A 90 plus year dynasty in music.
As said previously. The story told is not intended to be an expose’. There is no intent to damage the reputation of those referred to, but they were key players who undoubtedly had a very big role to play in the Stoneman’s lives. The recollections are true and honest.
The Stoneman family wish it be known that there is no question of retaliation, malice or the seeking of any kind of justice.
They believe that God in his wisdom ordains the way our pathway in life takes us. And that forgiveness is entrusted to us that may have felt betrayed in this life.
4th July 2013
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