January 26th, 2009 | Interviews

emily ryan

Roni Stoneman is often called ‘the first lady of banjo’ because of her skill and because she would do a good job if in control of the entire free world. Her family band the Stoneman Family did bluegrass with a Black Flag work ethic and they are featured beautifully in the new book Pure Country, which cherry-picks the photography archives of true believer Leon Kagarise. She speaks now with a head cold that makes her sound like Lauren Bacall. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

Have you ever been to Disneyland?
As a matter of fact, the Stonemans did the soundtrack on the Bear Jamboree! We lived in beautiful downtown Burbank and went over to Disneyland—the Bear Jamboree is fashioned after the Stonemans! My sister Donna and myself and pa and Scott—we all picked together. There were five bands in the family at one time—daddy took the younger children as ‘Pop Stoneman and the Little Pebbles.’ Isn’t that a cute thought? We never learned to play from reading. None of us were scholars. We lived in Maryland—a one-room house with a clapboard roof. In 1920, daddy recorded for Thomas Edison. ‘The Sinking Of The Titanic.’ I got the cylinder and a cylinder player. He went to New York and was making lots of money for an old mountain preacher’s son from Virginia. When the Depression hit in ’29, daddy lost everything because he signed a lot of bank notes. Mommy played fiddle and banjo and she married daddy when she was 19. My older brothers just played music to get drunk by. Like daddy said—‘They’ll always send you up a drink, but they won’t buy you a sandwich when you’re down!’ ‘Send that fiddle a drink! Get that skinny one on banjo—get her a drink!’ ‘No, I want a sandwich!’ We played honky-tonks but it was all drunks—people wasn’t sophisticated. We didn’t have shoes to go to school in! Four or five officials came to the house when we were eating dinner—we had a long table grandpa made mommy when she got married and had a dowry. Every time someone got married, we took a slat out of the table. If somebody made a movie, it’d be funnier than O Brother, Where Art Thou? I see it now—then I didn’t see it because I was in it! Twelve or fifteen children in a one-room shack with a tent roof and straw-tick mattresses—mama would do her best! So the teachers from the District of Columbia, they said, ‘Mr. Stoneman, your sons and daughter is not scholistic?’ Daddy was a smart man—very very creative. He won $60,000 on a geography show. He’d go every week to New York to answer questions. He’d get the geography books from the Salvation Army—‘They’re never gonna go outdated!’ He’d get the books and read them—very avid when he had time. And the lady said, ‘Well, we noticed your children brought to school homemade instruments and they’re all playing music during recess and writing songs.’ And daddy said, ‘Yeah, they have a tendency to do that.’ We were all sitting on the bench on the other side of the table—I guess I was about nine, swinging my legs, and they said, ‘We’d like to send six of your children to Juilliard School, and the District of Columbia will pay.’ And daddy said, ‘That’s a mighty fine school and I’m mighty proud you asked. Any of you young ‘uns wanna go?’ And everybody looked at my brother Scott—he pulled back from the table—he’d be eleven times world-champ fiddler—and he said, ‘No, daddy, we wanna stay here and help you feed us.’ Young people today don’t have that comradeship—don’t have the hard times. A lot of them are working with name artists who have to have everything just right—all these electric sounds. ‘WAH WAH WAH.’ The first time I played with a drummer who had electric drums, I thought he was listening to a ball game—‘Are they winnin’ yet?’
The Stonemans did everything themselves, didn’t they?
We had to take care of ourselves! Sometimes we didn’t have enough to eat—that’s why I say send a sandwich! You gotta love music—you can’t just play for yourself. Daddy said no matter how good you think you are, someone somewhere is better—they just haven’t come out of the hills yet. Daddy was smart—that’s something that sticks with you. We’d play a lot in Maryland and D.C.—right there next to the Greyhound station. The Famous Bar and Grill. The servicemen would come over and have a few drinks, needless to say. They liked their music. We played six shows a night!
Six shows a night?
You ain’t got the drift yet! An hour—duh, I’d do that in a burp! A fleeting moment! Six hours a night six nights a week with fifteen minute breaks. $56 a week not including tips. Country just wasn’t popular enough for concert halls. We did a whole lot of music and half the time people would run off with the money. ‘THE MAN HAS LEFT THE GROUNDS!’ But we went—we knew our instruments, knew we could sing, knew our harmonies, won vocal group of the year, had our own TV show, and then we’d get there and the man had run off with the money. And we’d play for nothing! You had to—the fans were extremely important! People make you feel good. You’re in from the mountains—grandfather played and great-grandfather and the music is pure roots. And there are hard times on mountain people, but they have their music and culture and sad songs and good songs—they pull through because they’re perserverence-type people. They’re strong. They don’t fall by the wayside. They play their banjos and fiddles and guitar—homemade style—that’s my background and I love ‘em very very much, and I’m not gonna let an audience down! You don’t do that! That’s for wussies! Go away! I love ‘em too much—that’s my problem! My manager said, ‘Don’t be too friendly! You take the mystique away—you go out like you’re at a family reunion!’ Well, I am! I’ll invite you to the Stoneman family reunion. I mean they pick! That’s where I’m from. I’m proud of that. When you come up to Galax, that’s what you’re gonna do!
Do you remember the shows Leon Kagarise was shooting in the book?
This man Leon—everywhere we’d turn around there would be Leon with a camera and a little recorder. We’d sit there and let him. He was a good man. A charming man with his heart and soul into this music! He was wonderful! The world needs more Leons. All of us up there pickin’ and a-grinnin’ and playin’ for the audience and he was doing little tapings. It wasn’t radio. Just his hobby. This book is absolutely gorgeous. Did you see it, pumpkin? Oh my God, it’s wonderful. I have my book, too—Pressing On by Ellen Wright. The whole thing is true! You don’t make up stuff like this. It’s entertaining to people who don’t have this life. I know because when we played UCLA and Berkeley and the Troubadour, all the college young people would ask us questions. ‘When did you start playing? How did you learn?’ My daddy told him his father. Tell ‘em the truth and where the music came from and how we made our instruments and how we’d dance during hard times—how the men would go outside—they called it ‘going to the spring house’ because the liquor was kept there and they wouldn’t drink in front of the ladies! For instance—we were playing the Famous Bar and Grill and I noticed a couple nights there were seven men on the right hand side of me—I remember everything!—and they didn’t holler and they wasn’t all drunk and I wondered what they were doing in here? They said they were professors from Georgetown. ‘Why you all doin in here listening to this mess?’ ‘We came to see the great Stonemans!’ ‘You think we’re great?’ ‘Oh yeah, we love your misic and we love your culture.’ And I said, ‘I didn’t know we had one!’ It makes you feel good. That heartfelt feeling that I’m OK and everybody don’t make fun of you because you’re hillbilly and raggy and it makes you love ‘em! When you’re so poor and you got homemade instruments and your shoes are all worn—you’re wearing your brothers’ shoes—but you’re playing good music, and they come up to you and you think they’re educated and smart and ain’t they wonderful? They taught us from the very beginning, the audience. It sounds corny but it’s the truth. They taught us the music was important to them. The book is the very best country book—and I’ve seen every one in Nashville! Some of the best photos you’ve ever seen—this man had the best you can get!
It says he’d cry when you played.
I know it, honey! Aw! He was just a fan, we thought—‘How’s Leon? There’s our fan!’ Good fans are like that. People who love you! People today miss out on so much. You got so much riches here and you don’t even know when you got fans who care. We played good, too—we’re no slouch when it came to instruments! We played and the perspiration would just come off you! But people like Leon—he was so understanding and so excited. You could never say no! Sometimes fans from the mountains come up to me—because of Hee Haw because I’d dress up as the Ironing Board Lady. ‘Lemme see if you as ugly as I think ya are!’ They were great! ‘You’re not as ugly as I thought!’ I say, ‘Well, I was so ugly I had no place to go but up!’ And I love it. ‘Hey, ma! She looks just like us!’
Does that still happen?
Yes! That’s what so cute! I love it. An old man in Nashville—an old feller who’d come across the street with his family. He had a walker and was very old. I was smiling and I thought, ‘Country music brought them people here.’ He stopped and said, ‘Aren’t you Ernest Stoneman’s least ‘un?’ ‘You know ‘em?’ ‘I sure do! I remember you when I was a kid!’ ‘How old are you?’ ‘96! This is my first trip to Nashwille!’ He said, ‘I remember you when I was a kid’? How old does he think I am? But he’d seen me onstage 4-5-6-7-10—all the years of my life. He grew up with me! He remembered. So I told my daughter I kicked the walker out from under him! I got a story I wanna tell you—the one about Debbie Reynolds! I was in Niagara Falls and I thought it was an Amish girl because she had the Little Red Riding Hood cape—it was so cold outside, cold as can be! She was trying to hide herself and was freezing and had several people around her to help—friends I guess, or people that are managers and stuff. So I tell the girl at the hotel, ‘Watch this—I love to aggravate people!’ So I walk out and say, ‘Hey, y’all! The swimming pool is gonna be open in 35 minutes and they have skinny-dippin’ out there because this is Canada and they wanna show everybody how strong they are! Because Canadians are really something else!’ And she looked up—she raised her head up and said, ‘She is crazy, isn’t she?’