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BIOGRAPHY > FRIENDS > POP STONEMAN
Pop Stoneman Family and Jack Clement
Sometime in the late forties, Marine Private Jack H. Clement got in a cab in the Washington DC area where he was stationed and said, "Take me where there's some good country music". The driver dropped him at a ramshackle abode in the Maryland suburbs which housed a dozen or so of the Stoneman Family. Off and on for the next 60 years their lives would intersect.
Back in 1923, after hearing one of the first hillbilly recordings by his friend Henry Whitter, Ernest Stoneman told his wife Hattie, "I can do better than that." And he did. The next year he made his way to New York and cut "The Sinking of the Titanic" which went on, eventually, to sell a million. Ralph Peer, buoyed by the success, came to Bristol to record some more of Pop and his relations and put a small ad in the paper announcing it and soliciting any other "talent". When he arrived there was a line around the block and in that line were the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. The commercial country music was born. 80 years later Ernest V. "Pop" Stoneman was named posthumously to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In between he raised a family of 15 kids (8 others died in infancy), many of whom joined him in various musical groups. They survived the Great Depression despite grueling poverty - the book The Stonemans is a fascinating read.
One of the sons, Scotty, grew up to be one of the greatest fiddlers in the history of bluegrass.
Jack became a frequent visitor and family friend, and after his discharge, formed a band with Scott, his brother Jimmy, and mandolin player, Buzz Busby. They toured as far as Boston to play the WCOP Hayloft Jamboree for promoter Aubrey Mayhew who produced
a recording session that was released as a 78 rpm on the Sheridan label.
Jack and Buzz flank Elton Britt at WCOP Jamboree 1953
As a family band, the Stonemans won the Ted Mack Amateur Hour and went on playing their mix of old-time folk, western swing, gospel, and bluegrass around the country.
Pop Stoneman about the time Jack met him
Clement returned to his hometown Memphis and played a large part in the birth of rock 'n' roll at Sun Records. But he did not lose touch with the Stonemans, and, when he wound up in Beaumont, Texas in the early 60s, brought them down to play at a club he was involved in called the Tap Room. After the group had gone out to California and was having some success as part of the "hootenanny" craze, they called on Jack, now known as "Cowboy", to come out to join them. At a DJ convention he met Richard Bock who had done a 12-string guitar record with Glen Campbell for World Pacific although the label was mostly know for their Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker cool jazz discs. This resulted in Jack producing WP1828 Big Ball in Monterey - the Stoneman Family Live! One of the highlights is Scotty's vocal on the Jack Clement/Allen Reynolds composition "Take Me Home" and Jack Music is also listed as the publisher for the arrangements. Though the recording was actually done in the studio, at least the cover featured performance photos which complement the "applause" which follows the numbers. A quarter century later Reynolds created a similar effect when he produced "Friends in Low Places" for Garth Brooks.
It was also around this time that the Stonemans signed a management contract with Cowboy Jack. The chapter in the Tribe book is entitled "The Golden Years-Again 1964-69". If anybody can be said to have had the Midas touch in that period, it would have to be Cowboy Jack Clement - he had pitched and published George Jones's "She Thinks I Still Care"; he produced "Ring of Fire" for Johnny Cash, making up the signature horn part; he financed, wrote, produced and pitched Charley Pride, an African-American artist in "Old South" Nashville; he published and produced Townes Van Zandt's first records; he wrote two of the songs on Cash's Folsom Prison album.
But back to the Stonemans. Cowboy moved back to Nashville in 1965 and got them booked into what had hitherto been a strip club in Printer's Alley called The Black Poodle. They were an unexpected smash. Members of the family (but not Scott) ended up moving to Music City and having a local TV show. They were signed to MGM and Clement produced several records with some success on radio with the Cowboy-penned "Five Little Johnson Girls" and "Back in Nashville, Tennessee" as well as Cowboy-published "Christopher Robin" written by Vince Matthews.
Watch The Stoneman Family (w/ Ernest V. Finger"Pop" Stoneman) do
Five Little Johnson Girls (Clement)
All this activity culminated in the Stoneman Family being named Vocal Group of the Year at the first CMA Awards in 1967. Things were going well and in the winter of '68 plans were being made to make a new record around the patriarch of the family. However, Pop took ill that spring and, after a stay in the hospital, passed away June 14, 1968. Jack was determined to go ahead with the tribute to the great old man. The album MGM SE-4583 would be culled from video tapes and previous albums with some new material benefitting from overdubs. There was a printed insert covering the history and detailed song notes with the assertion that "Pop became the only country/folk musician to star successively on the media of acoustic disc and cylinder record, electrical record, hi-fi and stereo LP album, and television." And here is an mp3
on the World Wide Web "Stoney's Waltz"
Pop and the Autoharp
As a child Ernest Stoneman heard his Grandmother Bowers play "Nearer My God to Thee" on her autoharp. This would have been sometime around the turn of the Twentieth Century when autoharps were finding their way into the mountains of Appalachia courtesy of the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Apparently her style was to pick a note and then strum the chord after it without a regular rhythm in the manner of unaccompanied hymn singing. Ernest developed a much more elaborate picking pattern and is generally credited with being the first to record with an autoharp as well as being the first to pick out the melody interspersed with the chords. He played lap style but had fashioned a wood carrying case with snaps which would act as an amplifier similar to a piano sounding board as the instrument sat atop it. When even more volume was required, he had a small, attachable contact mic, again perhaps the first of its kind. He also made himself a fingerpick out of spring steel and developed a thumb-index finger technique so he could pinch the melody note and follow it with a back-and-forth rhythm. You can see in the photo at the top of the page, Stoneman had a wheel-like contraption fitted to his harmonica brace so he could switch keys. Early career photos often show him with guitar as well, but as the decades wore on, the autoharp became more of his trademark.
"Stony's Waltz", composed around 1930, was the first commercially-issued autoharp instrumental [Folkways FA 2315 (1957)]. Mike Seeger came to interview Pop then and was told about Kilby Snow in Fries, VA who along with Stoneman and The Benfields appeared on the landmark recording Mountain Music played on the Autoharp [Folkways FA 2365 (1961)]. This was reissued in 2006 as Masters of Old-Time Country Autoharp with additiional material and notes and is even available as mp3 downloads (click on the cover below):
After Pop died, Patsy, who had been fronting a group of her own, took up the autoharp duties. Clement produced a family Christmas album after Pop's passing, and Patsy does a number entitled "Santa Played the Autoharp". It was the first recording she had done with the instrument. This project also contains the touching recitation "Christmas without Dad".
In April 2008, assisted by Cowboy Jack Clement on guitar, Patsy, Roni, and Donna perform "Sinking of the Titanic" at the induction of their father into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee.
Patsy Stoneman - Mount Laurel Autoharp Gathering 2001 [photo: Kathie Hollandsworth]