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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 416

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This is the grave of Pop and Hattie Stoneman, as well as Scotty Stoneman and other various Stoneman Family members.

Ernest “Pop” Stoneman was born in 1893 in Monarat, Virginia. In late nineteenth and early twentieth century Appalachia, there wasn’t much in the way of popular entertainment. Music filled the gap, especially what today we would call old-time fiddle and banjo music. Stoneman became a fiddler, but really could play any of the instruments of that music very well, including guitar, autoharp, banjo, harmonica, and jaw harp. His mother died when he was 3 but he grew up in a large extended family that all played music. It wasn’t too surprising that he was attracted to a young musician from a similar family, Hattie Frost. They married in 1918 and had a mere 23 children, of which 13 survived. This was the common fate of women during these years. Hattie was very lucky that she did not die during one of these pregnancies. But in the rare times when she wasn’t pregnant, she also played with her husband. There wasn’t any money in this of course and Stoneman worked in lumber mills, mines, and as a carpenter. But in the 1920s, radio became a thing. When he heard records for the first time, he realized that he was better than these people so he determined to record. He traveled to New York in 1924 and recorded two sides for Okeh Records. He managed a few other sessions for Okeh and other early labels. By 1926, he was recording with his family members. His children were too young, but they were all being trained in various instruments. The family band, a staple of the southern musical tradition, would be fully embraced by the Stonemans. Hattie played fiddle, his cousin George was on banjo, two of Hattie’s siblings played banjo and organ, and there were others too. He also helped Ralph Peer go to Bristol, Tennessee and find some of the most talented musicians around, which included the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, in the recording sessions many argue is the start of modern country music. He recorded through 1929, over 200 songs in total. Their recordings are a combination of old-time music with the ridiculous and mostly awful rural comedy skits that were common as part of entertainment of that era.

The Great Depression nearly destroyed the music industry. Most of the recording artists of the 1920s, both black and white, disappeared from the music scene and descended back into the poverty they came from in the 1930s. This included the Stonemans. They lost their home and most of their possessions. I assume they were living relatively high on the hog through the 20s and probably had a lot of credit they couldn’t pay. With such a huge family, just paying for housing and food took a lot of money. They moved to Washington, DC so Pop could find a job and try to restart his musical career. But there were a lot of bad years in there. It wasn’t until just before World War II that he even found steady work, not surprisingly in the defense industry, in a gun factory. They kept playing, getting local gigs where they could. By the end of the war, most of the children were either grown or growing and they worked as a family band when they could. They finally caught a break in 1947, when they won a talent contest on a DC television show, which gave them about 6 months of consistent local exposure. They kept plugging away at any media gig they could get. In 1956, Pop won $10,000 on the NBC quiz show The Big Surprise, which certainly helped. His children, now playing under the name the Blue Grass Champs, also won a talent competition on the CBS show The Talent Scouts, in 1958.

At the same time, the folk revival was beginning. Folkies were searching for the survivors of the 1920s recording boom. This is how the Delta blues people such as Missisippi John Hurt and Skip James were rediscovered. It was the same for the white old-time acts. With the Stonemans still actually trying to make a living in music, it wasn’t so hard to find them. Mike Seeger, one of the most important figures in the folk revival, started recording Pop and Hattie on Folkways. This allowed Pop to retire and a steady income to come in. They recorded a bunch of albums in the early 1960s, got a gig at Disneyland for awhile, appeared on some TV shows, and played the folk festival circuit. They even got their own syndicated TV show in 1965 and received the Country Music Associaton’s 1967 Vocal Group of the Year award. Many of their children were playing with them at this time.

Pop Stoneman died in 1968, which was about the same time that the folk revival began drying up anyway. The rest of the family kept it going for a couple of years and released singles through at least 1970. Hattie died in 1976. Other members routinely played on the hideously awful Hee-Haw through most of its regretful existence, though to be fair, the “comedy” that show entailed did reach back to the old-time Stoneman Family recordings. A couple of the children are still alive and occasionally appear at a bluegrass festival. In 2008, Pop Stoneman was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Pop and Hattie Stoneman, as well as many of their children, are buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Nashville, Tennessee. There are a lot of graves surrounding them, but I am only choosing to highlight Scotty Stoneman here, a ridiculously talented fiddler who had a great career for himself in the Kentucky Colonels as well, but who also drank himself to death in 1973. Most of the other children were fairly minor players in the country music scene, but anyone who manages to make a career in the music business certainly deserves our respect.

Let’s listen to the Stonemans:

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader contributions, for which I am eternally grateful. If you would like this series to visit other members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Mel Tillis is in Clarksville, Tennessee and Carl Smith is in Franklin, Tennessee. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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