BY IVAN M. TRIBE
Ernest V. Stoneman – born in Monarat, Virginia, [Carroll County] May 25, 1893; died June 14, 1968 – was the Patriarch of a legendary musical family. Ernest Van “Pop” Stoneman helped establish country music’s viability during its first wave of commercial success. Convinced he could play and sing better than other musicians who preceded him on disc, he journeyed to New York in 1924 to record for OKEH RECORDS. Early in 1925 he recorded his hit rendition of “The Titanic,” a song memorializing the sensational 1912 ocean disaster. This became Stoneman’s breakthrough number, and other sessions for OKeh soon followed. Accompanied by his own autoharp, harmonica, and guitar, the multi-instrumentalist and vocalist cut traditional songs (“John Hardy”), sentimental numbers (“Bury Me Beneath the Willow”), and event songs (“Wreck of the C&O”).
Early on, Stoneman recorded solo for the EDISON label as the Blue Ridge Mountaineer, a name befitting his birth in the mountain community of Iron Ridge, near Monarat, Virginia. By August 1926 he began to enlist neighbors and kin in various combinations. His wife, Hattie; Kahle Brewer; and Eck Dunford played fiddle. Ernest’s cousin George Stoneman played banjo, and Hattie’s siblings Bolen and Irma Frost played banjo and organ, respectively. Hattie Stoneman, Edna Brewer, and Walter Mooney, among others, also assisted Ernest on vocals. For the Edison, GENNETT, OKeh, and Victor (see RCA VICTOR) labels, Pop and his musical cohorts recorded as Ernest Stoneman & His Dixie Mountaineers, amassing an extensive repertoire of sacred songs (“The Great Reaping Day”), tragic numbers (“The Fatal Wedding”), sentimental pieces (“Two Little Orphans”), and traditional tunes (“Old Joe Clark”). As Ernest Stoneman & the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers, they also preserved rural comedy skits such as “Old Time Corn Shuckin’” and “Possum Trot School Exhibition.” Strong sales encouraged Victor Records producer RALPH PEER to set dates in BRISTOL, TENNESSEE-VIRGINIA, in 1927 to record Stoneman and other artists Stoneman recruited. The CARTER FAMILY and JIMMIE RODGERS, drawn by Peer’s advertising, made their first recordings during those landmark sessions. Stoneman prospered in the late 1920s as his recording income surpassed his earnings as a carpenter.
During these flush times, he purchased home appliances to lighten the workload shared by his wife and daughters and generously loaned money to friends. But when the Great Depression set in, many of these loans went unpaid, and his record sales fell dramatically. In fact, Stoneman did not record between December 1929 and December 1933, and only six of the eighteen sides he made in 1934 were issued. His sessions of January 10, 1934, marked the end of his prewar recording career. Ernest V. Stoneman (center, on guitar) with the Dixie Mountaineers In 1932, Ernest and Hattie Stoneman had moved with their nine children to the Washington, D.C., area, where Ernest found intermittent carpentry work. As hard times wore on and their family grew, the Stonemans knew poverty firsthand. At times they were forced to seek shelter in leaky, dilapidated houses, and more than once the children went to school hungry. Prospects brightened with the improving economy of the World War II years, and after the conflict Pop began organizing a band featuring a number of his offspring, who eventually coalesced as THE STONEMAN FAMILY. During the 1960s, with Pop playing autoharp and singing, this group cut albums, worked folk festivals and clubs, and starred on their own syndicated TV series. Pop lived to see the Stoneman Family win CMA’s 1967 Vocal Group of the Year award. Hattie Stoneman, who died on July 22, 1976, also witnessed this triumph. Election to THE COUNTRY MUSIC HALL OF FAME in 2008 was a fitting honor for this remarkable musician.
The Stoneman Family Pattie Inez “Patsy” Stoneman b. Galax, Virginia, May 27, 1925 Calvin Scott Stoneman b. Galax, Virginia, August 4, 1932; d. March 4, 1973 Donna LaVerne Stoneman b. Alexandria, Virginia, February 7, 1934 Oscar James Stoneman b. Washington, D.C., March 8, 1937; d. September 22, 2002 Veronica Loretta Stoneman b. Washington, D.C., May 5, 1938 Van Haden Stoneman b. Washington, D.C., December 31, 1940; d. June 3, 1995 The children of country music pioneer ERNEST V. STONEMAN forged a career for themselves with a style that fused an exciting blend of BLUEGRASS and country music. Although various Stoneman siblings were performing together by the late 1940s, the group grew out of a Washington, D.C., band called the Bluegrass Champs, which featured the fiddling talents of Scott Stoneman, sister Donna’s mandolin work, brother Jim’s bass, and the skills of non-family members. They emerged as winners on an Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts CBS-TV show in 1956. By 1961, following the addition of Van Stoneman on guitar, sister Veronica (Roni) on banjo, and Ernest “Pop” Stoneman as featured vocalist and autho-harpist, the all-family group had set their sights on stardom. The Stoneman Family cut a pair of albums for STARDAY in 1962 and 1963, with JACK CLEMENT as their manager.
After moving briefly to Texas and then California, they recorded for the World Pacific label and worked at various clubs and Disneyland before finally coming to Nashville late in 1965. In MUSIC CITY they signed with MGM RECORDS and soon started their own syndicated television program, Those Stonemans, which ran into 1972. Their showmanship helped win them CMA’s Vocal Group of the Year Award in 1967, but Pop’s death the following year left a void. Older sister Patsy replaced him and exercised increasing leadership as time progressed. The Stonemans moved to RCA in 1969 but had less success than they had on MGM. Although Roni’s departure in 1971 and Donna’s in 1972 took a toll on the group’s audience appeal, Patsy, Jimmy, and Van carried on with the help of non-family sidemen. Donna later returned and Roni continued to work with them at times, but by the 1980s much of their momentum had ebbed. Roni established an independent image for some eighteen years (1973’1991) as a banjo picker and comedienne on the popular TV show HEE HAW. By the time of the biography, The Stonemans, appeared in 1993, increasing health problems for Jim and Van had rendered the group inactive. Roni continues to work as a solo act, Donna pursues evangelistic and gospel music endeavors, and Patsy also makes occasional appearances.