Forgotten Artists: Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman and The Stoneman Family

Paul W. Dennis | October 6th, 2008

The Stoneman Family

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 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 comprised mostly of his children and calling itself the Blue Grass Champs, were winners on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts show on CBS TV. During the 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.

Stoneman 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.

Discography

CDs
There hasn’t been a lot of Stoneman material available during the CD era, either of Pop Stoneman or of the Stoneman Family since Pop Stoneman’s demise. The good news is that a new 2 CD set has been 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 (including 28 Big Ones, material from 1957-1962 issued by King of Starday) are available at Amazon and www.ernesttubb.com.

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. Collector’s Choice Music has 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.

LPs
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-Stonemans 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 are post-Pop Stoneman. While the family continued to record some of the older songs, the general sound and repertoire become 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 Colonel collections. Bela Fleck called him the Jimi Hendrix of fiddle players and Jerry Garcia called him the Charlie Parker of fiddlers.

Books
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 not read Tribe’s book, although I intend to obtain a copy. Roni’s book is about her own life, but includes many stories about her father and siblings. It’s a delightful read, but if you ever met Roni Stoneman, you would expect no less.

3 Pings

  1. [...] Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman and The Stoneman Family [...]
  2. [...] more entries in Paul W. Dennis’ Forgotten Artists series: Jeannie C. Riley The Stoneman Family Tommy Collins Webb Pierce Dick Feller [...]
  3. [...] like the Lewis Family— they’ve been at it nearly 60 years now. Another example would be the Stoneman Family; we’ve met a few of them. Up in Canada, there’s a family band by the name of Leahy; at one [...]
  1. Rick
    October 6, 2008 at 11:21 am

    Thanks for another fine article Paul. I think Hattie Stoneman deserves some kind of award for giving birth to 23 children! Yikes!

    Sometimes they will feature Stonemans’ Family albums during the Ernest Tubb Midnite Jamboree radio show, but apart from that I had never really heard of them. Talk about a musical legacy though! I’m thankful the Cherryholmes family is helping to maintain the legacy and tradition of family bands like the Stoneman’s whether they know it or not….

  2. Brady Vercher
    October 6, 2008 at 11:29 am

    Rick, if you check out the Ernest Tubb Record Shop website, it has links to view or listen to the Midnight Jamboree this Saturday, which will be hosted by Patsy, Donna, and Roni Stoneman.

  3. Rick
    October 6, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    Brady, thanks for the tip. I’m hoping the E.T. Midnite Jamboree will invite Amber Digby back soon to promote her new album, and maybe Amber could bring label mate Kimberly Murray along too!

    The E.T Midnite Jamboree is broadcast on WSM Online at midnight Nashville time after the second Opry show on Saturday nights (after an Eddie Stubbs time filler segment). Due to time zone differences that means the Jamboree starts at a reasonable 10 PM out here on the west coast. Its the second longest running continuous radio show in the US after the Grand Ole Opry and I would guess the average age of listeners to be in their 70’s. Kind of like the radio equivalent of Branson….

  4. Ed H.
    October 7, 2008 at 10:59 pm

    I remember watching “Those Stonemans'” show on Saturday afternoon in the 60’s either before or after the Porter Wagoner Show. The running gag on the show was who ate the most biscuits and “Pops” always won. I don’t remember if a flour company or biscuit company was their sponsor or not. I remember seeing the first show after “Pops Stoneman” died and they showed his empty rocking chair. They rerun many of the old Country shows on RFDTV but I have never seen any of ” Those Stonemans'” rerun on any network since they originally ran. Maybe they don’t exist anymore.

  5. Rick
    October 12, 2008 at 2:22 am

    Those zany Stoneman gals were really cutting up on the Midnite Jamboree and made for a thoroughly delightful show. I think it was Patsy who is 83 (same age as the Grand Ole Opry) and although the two older sister’s voices show their age their youthful exhuberance makes up for it. The banjo and mandolin pickin was still strong after all these decades. Ronnie kept saying that she was “the pretty one” on Hee Haw and those other women were dogs!

    These gals are the last direct links to the original Stoneman Family band and won’t be around forever. It was nice of the E.T Record Shop to feature these gals at this time. Once the program is archived it will be worth listening to by any student of country music history.

  6. DAN
    November 19, 2008 at 8:47 am

    Just became a fan of these guys. Tupelo County Jail is even better than Webb Pierce’s version.

  7. DAN
    November 19, 2008 at 8:49 am

    Hope we’ll see a revival of these types of family groups again.

  8. don
    December 3, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    that music sucks big time is why its hard to find look in the dumpster

  9. francine michaels
    February 12, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    I have met Ronnie and her sisters, great folks. I wish RFD would dig up their music and put it on.

  10. Melanie Carlisle
    February 22, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    The Stoneman family is truly legendary! The music is as beautiful as the day Pop & family created it. Roni & Donna entertained me many many times on Hee Haw. Donna keep on dancing & playing. Patsy God bless you for the new cd of Pops songs.
    Roni you made me love the banjo. Love to you all!

  11. Bob Patrick
    September 9, 2009 at 8:09 am

    “Those Stonemans” was sponsored by Gingham Girl flour, and I remember that Van seemingly could eat his (considerable) weight in biscuits made with the product…or so the Stonemans would have you believe.

    When I was about 13 or 14 I had a crush on Donna. Now I’m not normally a fan of country music but I’d tune in on Saturday afternoons just to see her. She may have lost the cuteness but she still looks pretty good. And Roni was a hoot as Ida Lee Nagger on “Hee Haw.”

    I think their show is one of the most underrated of the syndicated offerings of the ’60s.

  12. Bob Patrick
    September 9, 2009 at 8:17 am

    I might add that I’ve seen the kinescope of the Blue Grass Champs’ win on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.” I think they were shocked when the audience voted them that week’s winners; they’d thought a pop singer named Ann Leonardo would win.

    I’ve heard a story that as their prize they got to appear on Godfrey’s morning show for a week, and that Godfrey was taken with Donna and “wanted to get to know her better.” Donna apparently knew what he really meant and let him know she was married. Now Godfrey was known for his unpredictability (firing Julius La Rosa on the air was his most famous example), but he harbored no ill-will against Donna or her brothers and held them over a second week.

  13. connie
    January 20, 2010 at 8:15 am

    my grandfather has talked about them for yrs and he says they r our family i see it my mom looks just like roni i just today got to sit down and chk them out im older and interested and i love what i have found out in them they r cousins i would love to meet them my family name is smythers and im from carroll county va

  14. Kevin W
    February 3, 2011 at 6:26 am

    I’m currently co-producing and co-writing a new CD project with one of “Pop”s grandchildren (Van’s son) — Randy Stoneman.
    Music runs in the genes for sure. Randy is a great musician and artist!
    We’ve also become friends over the years. He’s as country as a homemade sock; a genuine guy. Proud of his musical heritage. Rightly so. I think the world of him.
    We’re taking our time making this CD. But it’s well worth it. We are working on having Roni / Donna do a guest appearance. We’re also featuring a song Randy wrote about Pop: “Banjo Man”. Got some good pickin’ on it!
    Be looking for the project later on in the year. It’s going to be worth the wait…
    KW

  15. johnny
    February 22, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    I just heard ”Sinking of the Titantic” and ”Christopher Robin” by the Stonemans.Great stuff

  16. mike caldwell
    April 25, 2011 at 9:12 am

    I saw Patsy and Donna saturday night in Owensboro KY. Pretty incredible. If Donna isn’t rock and roll , I don’t know what is. This is music without definition. The virtuosity she displayed on mandolin is without peer. This was one of those music moments in your life that changes you and makes every problem in your life not that big
    a deal. Glad I saw it.

  17. Bernice Noel
    August 15, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Love to watch the stonemans play, saw Patsy and Donna on tv last night, great to see them again, keep on playing and God Bless you

  18. kate wonders
    April 14, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    Roni Stoneman is still on Hee Haw every Sunday night on RFD channel.

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