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About the Group
About The Group
About 1940, Ernest and Hattie Stoneman, having survived the worst elements of the Great Depression, obtained a vacant lot in Carmody Hills, Maryland and built a one-room house with used and throw-away lumber to house their large family. Ernest found steady work at the US Naval Gun Factory, but the family remained poor because there were so many of them. Still, a move from dire to mid-level poverty constituted an improvement. Nonetheless, "Pop" as he was increasingly known, endeavored to keep as much involvement in music as he could no matter how minute, sometimes playing for as little as leftover food and involving his children as much as possible. No doubt he held out hope that he might again secure opportunity to enjoy the success that had been his in the 1920s.
All of the children manifested some degree of musical skills. Grace and John had little interest in pursuing music as a career although Grace might have, had she not been so busy trying to survive a bad marriage and support two children. Eddie, Billy, Dean, and Gene generally contented themselves as part-time musicians. Patsy eventually became a full-time musician after two bad marriages. Jack, who one non-family friend said probably had more intelligence than any of the children, but nothing ever worked for him and he spent his life mired in alcoholism. Scott was the most talented and skilled, but his alcohol problems also limited his considerable achievements and curtailed his leadership potential. Donna, Jimmy (who had serious health problems), Roni, and Van had the most career success, although as a group, their career achievements surpassed their financial rewards.
Various Stoneman combinations characterized their musical work in the 1940's and early 1950's. A conglomeration including Pop, Hattie, and many of the children won the Connie B. Gay sponsored contest at Constitution Hall in 1947 which gave them 26 weeks of exposure on WARL radio and local television. Eddie, Billy, Jack, and sometimes others, comprised the Stoneman Brothers who used electric instruments and moved toward more modern styles. Pop Stoneman and his Little Pebbles included Jimmy, Roni, Van, and two other youngsters, Larry King and Zeke Dawson; they did a weekly local radio show at WPGC and won the band contest at Galax in 1956. Scott worked stints with groups outside the family with such people as Buzz Busby, Jack Clement, and briefly Mac Wiseman.
Sometime in 1955, Sanford Bomstein, who owned a D.C. club called The Famous, asked Scott to put together a band to play six nights a week there. Thus was born the Bluegrass Champs consisting of Scott on fiddle, Donna on mandolin, Jimmy on bass, and two non-family members Jimmy Case on guitar and Porter Church on banjo. The band quickly gained a following on the local bluegrass scene and also appeared at such venues as New River Ranch in Rising Sun, Maryland; Sunset Park in West Grove, Pennsylvania, and the Park at Warrenton, Virginia where Scott won a number of fiddle contests.
In 1956, the upward struggle of the Stonemans advanced a couple of big steps. In March Pop appeared for several weeks on the NBC prime time quiz program, The Big Surprise, eventually winning $10,000 with his knowledge of geography. He even got to sing and play a litttle. A few weeks later the Bluegrass Champs were winners on the CBS-TV prime time program Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, subsequently appearing for a couple of weeks on his daytime program as well. The next year, the Champs, whose membership now included Jimmy's first wife, Peggy, had a single release on the tiny Bakersfield label, and Mike Seeger by the Stoneman Family (mostly Pop with Hattie on three cuts) recorded ten songs which appeared on a Folkways LP Old-Time Tunes of the South (FA 2315). Modest beginnings, but the revitalized Stonemans were on their way again.
Over the next three years the Bluegrass Champs evolved into the Stoneman Family. Jimmy Case and Porter Church left the band. Peggy also left when her brief marriage to Jimmy ended. Lew Houston (known on stage as "Lew Childree") was there for a time on steel guitar. But by 1961, the Champs consisted of Scott on fiddle, Donna on mandolin, Roni on banjo, Van on guitar, and Jimmy on bass with Pop as a featured performer on lead vocal and either autoharp or guitar. In March 1962, they went to Nashville, guested on the Grand Ole Opry alienating Hank Snow in the process), recorded two singles on a short-lived Billy Barton owned label, Gulf Reef, Donna doing a session with Rose Maddox, and Scott cutting a fiddle albums that was not released until about thirty years after his death. A second trip to Nashville a few months later resulted in a quality if under-rated LP for Starday Bluegrass Champs credited to Ernest V. Stoneman and the Stoneman Family (SLP 200). A second album The Great Old Timer at the Capitol (SLP 275) featured a cover that also appeared on the cover of the Washington Post Magazine on November 3, 1963.
About this time Jack Clement, who had known the Stonemans in Washington, DC while he was in the Marine Corps, re-entered their life. In January 1964, he secured an engagement at a club called The Tap Room in Beaumont, Texas, and worked to refashion their image into a folk group as the folk music boom was on at the time. They wore narrow ties and beanie caps. By the end of March they moved to the West Coast where they appeared on the UCLA and Monterrey Folk Festivals and cut an album for the World Pacific label. They also appeared on some TV shows and at folk clubs such as the Ash Grove and the Golden Bear as well as Disneyland. Spending the remaining months of 1964 and much of 1965 at various locales, they finally hit Nashville in the latter weeks of the year, having secured a long engagement at the Black Poodle club and a contract with MGM Records.
In April 1966, Those Stonemans, a syndicated TV program, premiered in ten markets and eventually expanded to 37 over the next two or three years. Unfortunately, Van Stoneman had been injured in an auto wreck and was not able to play shows until March, but between their MGM releases and their TV show, the Stonemans were a hot act for the next couple of years. Their combination of a bluegrass, country, and even a few show tunes made them a highly appealing group. Essentially a visual act highlighted by Donna's dancing with her mandolin work, Roni's comedy, Pop, in his rocking chair, doing an old time number or two, plus Jimmy and Van sharing the lead vocals made them quite appealing. Much of the time, they hired Jerry Monday as an extra musician, mostly on Dobro. They had several numbers on the charts, but their highest number "The Five Little Johnson Girls" peaked at only number twenty. Their popularity surged through 1966 and in the fall of 1967 they won the CMF Vocal Group of the Year Award.
By the spring of 1968, a few cracks began to appear. Pop, increasingly burdened by age, entered the hospital after an April 1968 MGM session and passed away in June. Patsy, the oldest musically active sister who had been leading her own group in the D.C. area, moved to Nashville and replaced Pop, providing what leadership they had. After leaving MGM, they signed with RCA in 1969 and had three long-play albums through 1970, but neither singles nor albums charted. Over-production was blamed and most songs were too contemporary for their more traditional roots. Their work on the Disneyland label for the Country Bear Jamboree paid royalties, but their name appeared nowhere on the record. Roni became increasingly unhappy and left early in 1971. The next year, Donna, depressed over a failing marriage, left in late 1972 or early 1973, opting to turn to gospel music and evangelistic work. Scotty rejoined, but died several weeks later in June 1973.
With no new records out, a brief relationship with Capitol terminated with no releases. A single release on a new independent label Million made almost no impact. The Stonemans survived with Patsy, Van and Jimmy, plus David Dougherty on banjo and Johnny Bellar on Dobro and were a quality group, but the magic of the 1966-69 years was lacking.
In 1976, they revitalized somewhat, signing with the new CMH label (two LPs) and did quality independent album Country Hospitality on RPA. Much of the work they did had been in Canada and that declined after the late 1970s because of changes in Canadian law.
In 1980, as CMH had recorded several double albums, Patsy conceived the idea of a double album that would feature the whole family including those not part of the touring Stonemans. Although John and the ill Billy chose not to participate, the others all did including Eddie, Grace, Jack, Dean, Gene, Donna and Roni. Donna rejoined about this time and Roni also worked with them from time to time while remaining on Hee Haw. The album was hailed as a musical success, but it did not rejuvenate their careers to an appreciable degree.
The Stonemans continued recording through the 1980s and into the 1990s although most of their recordings were on specialty bluegrass labels such as Old Homestead, Rutabaga, and Heritage. They appeared mostly at special events where they were honored such as the 50th Anniversary of the Galax Fiddler's Convention, the Berea Celebration of Traditional Music, the Smithsonian, or at the Anniversary of the Bristol Sessions. Van died in 1995 and Jimmy in 2002.
Patsy lived long enough to see her father finally inducted in to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Eventually, only Patsy, Donna, and Roni remained. Tom Mindte of Patuxent Records,a Stoneman fan of long standing produced three quality compact discs beginning in 2009, and 2012. Patsy died in 2015, prior to the family entry into the Bluegrass Hall of Honor. The third release in 2020 featured only Roni and Donna.
The Stonemans, after Pop's work as a country music pioneer, have always faced a dilemma. When they begin to re-emerge from Depression obscurity in the early forties, they were often considered a bit old-fashioned. Adopting bluegrass in the fifties, they soon tried to straddle the line between that and modern country but not being fully accepted by both. The academic community embraced them to a considerable degree and related their remarkable story in The Stonemans: An Appalachian Family and the Music That Shaped Their Lives (University of Illinois Press, 1993) and Roni's autobiography Pressing On (University of Illinois Press, 2007). With only two of the second generation remaining, as the title of the most recent Patuxent disc reads, The Legend Continues.
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