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A Conversation with Patsy Stoneman

[Interviewed by Will Smith]
Reprinted from the Spring 1991 issue of The Autoharpoholic magazine, Volume XII, No. 2. Copyright 1991 i.a.d. Publications. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

In the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum in Nashville, behind a plate of glass, a battered, black autoharp that belonged to Ernest V. ("Pop") Stoneman sits atop the wooden case he made by hand. I went there to see it before interviewing his daughter, Patsy. He had put button snaps on the outside of the case so the 'harp could be securely fastened when played. Also, a contact microphone, which must have been among the first of its kind, had been screwed on. In a separate display across the aisle is his son Scotty's instrument, a fiddle given him by Ervin Rouse, the man who wrote "Orange Blossom Special."


Patsy Stoneman - Mount Laurel Autoharp Gathering 2001

Patsy Stoneman - Mount Laurel Autoharp Gathering 2001
[photo: Kathie Hollandsworth]


The saga of the Stoneman Family spans the entire twentieth century, so I guess we better start at the beginning. You have photographs here of your father Pop's and your mother Hattie's families in Galax, Virginia, sitting on the front porch with their instruments. It must be the turn of the century. Who is that with the small black six-chord autoharp?
I guess Myrtle was playing it. I don't know where their harps came from, but I do know that Daddy built his first. He built it from pieces of a piano, like the wires and the pieces inside, I guess,the little tuners and stuff like that. An old piano had been destroyed, and he had used it to build him an autoharp.

Was it a conventional size autoharp?
If I remember rightly, just a little bit larger, because he also built him a table with a lid that raised up, and it was built inside to fit that autoharp. He'd just open it up and play it in that stand. I think that may have been what had given him the idea about the wooden case, because it seemed to make it louder that way.

Then in 1914, you were just telling me, he made a recording. He borrowed a neighbor's cylinder, an Edison kind of recorder, and recorded himself. Was it just for fun?
Well, I suppose he had some hopes. You can't never tell. I guess it was more or less something new that was happening, and he wanted to see what it was. It interested him, and he recorded it the autoharp and a harmonica. That recording was wax, I suppose, and it, of course, is not around anymore. I wish it was. The idea of sound pleased him, I suppose.

Now Pop lived in the age of World War I. Was he in the Army?
He was in the service and was out. In fact, him and Mama got married the day before Armistice Day in 1919. He had been in boot camp, but he never saw any overseas [action] because by the time he went in, it was over with.

Then in 1924, Pop took the initiative and wrote letters to the recording companies in New York.
Well, see, Daddy and Henry Whitter worked together over at the mills in Fries, Virginia, and Henry went to New York to record. I don't know how many recordings he did, but anyway, he went. Then Daddy heard the recording, and he told Mommy, "I can do as well or better. At least I don't sing through my nose." So, Mommy always would say "Well, Ernest, if you think you can do it, do it. Don't just talk about it." So Daddy proceeded to write all the recording companies he could get any information on at all. He saved the money to go, and then he went. When he got there, the way I understand it, he was not too happy with Columbia. They offered him such a small amount of money for what he figured was worth more. So then he went around to see Mr. Peer at Okeh, and that was it.

Peer signed a contract with him and cut many records up there in 1924, including "The Sinking Of The Titanic." That was a big seller—literally a million seller.
Yes. When we first come to Nashville here, we had a press agent. His investigations, from Daddy's statements and things that he had gotten, proved that it was a million seller. It was never officially declared a million seller because, at that time they didn't do those things. Vernon Dalhart was supposed to have the first million seller with the "Wreck of the Old 97," but that was only because he was sued for plagiarism. They went into court and proved that since he had sold that many records, he had to pay so much. Otherwise, I guess if Daddy had stole a song, or something, they could have proved [the same thing].

So, Pop Stoneman was the big star for Okeh when the famous Bristol sessions took place the summer of 1927. Ralph Peer came down both to record Pop at home and to record the family, too.
Well, he was a friend of Mommy's and Daddy's, because Daddy had been working with him a good while. They'd been going to New York; going to Atlanta, Georgia; Asheville, North Carolina; all over to record. When Mr. Peer set up to go to Bristol, he'd already told Daddy — now this was according to files — "Round me up some musicians, Ernest" You know? So, Daddy rented a room at the hotel in Galax to rehearse all these musicians, to listen to them, and Mr. Peer came to our house in Galax with his crew. The crew come on to Bristol to set up a warehouse where they could record.

[Author's Note: In 1987 the Country Music Association Foundation released a two record reissue of "The Bristol Sessions" to commemorate the 60th anniversary of what is regarded as the birth of commercial country music. The liner notes (which won a Grammy award) by Dr. Charles K. Wolfe state that of the two weeks of recording, the first week was devoted to Pop Stoneman and his family and friends, and then the next week the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers came in.]

Now, Pop recalled meeting Maybelle Carter that next week. He hadn't met her before?
I don't know. Daddy may have played there [in Wise County where the Carters lived] a lot, because he played everywhere. He played schoolhouses, he played dances, everything — any kind of show. He'd go out and stay out, I don't know how long, playing. He'd be all over the country, way back in the hills. He had heard a lot of people, and there's a possibility [he met the Carters].

Apparently one reason that Peer liked him so much is that he could learn new songs. He could not only do the traditional folk music, but he could learn the popular songs of the day and play a variety of music. Whatever. In fact, there is a man in Detroit, Michigan, and he has a little museum, and he has an interview with Maybelle Carter on tape saying that when they first heard of Ernest Stoneman, that they considered him a popular singer — not folk, not country. Daddy liked all kinds of music, but, of course, I guess his heart was in the stuff he really knew about He learned easy. He didn't forget.

He'd done a lot of things between 1925 and 1929, recording over two hundred songs. Your mother, HlH Hattie, was a musician too and played fiddle and banjo on the Bristol sessions. She also had twenty-three children ...
Fifteen of us grew up. The rest was lost at birth or died early.

When did she have time to play music with all those kids running around?
In 1924, when Daddy first went to New York, there was two children. I was born in 1925, and from the time I can remember up until the Depression, which is only about a five year period, we had maids — I guess you'd call them maids. They were girls, hired girls we called them then. There were three or four always to take care of us at home. Mommy just more or less, would go and come back, whatever. We didn't have any responsibility at all until 1930, when our twin brothers Gene and Dean were born. They were born premature. They were little bitty things. Daddy said their legs were no bigger than his middle finger, but when they were able to be carried around, then my sister Grace and I had to take care of them. The hired girls was gone, and most everything we had was gone. So we were responsible.

When the depression hit, nobody had money to buy records anymore. That's when you moved to Washington, D.C. area?
To Alexandria, Virginia, on King Street. There's an old abandoned house on the edge of the airport we moved to. Daddy played music with Joe Hopkins. And he played with several people around Washington. Then he put together a radio show.

So they kept entertaining.
Exactly. Daddy and Mommy would go out to play and open a car show, or anyplace. Then the kids started getting into the act. I read that Pop used to tune all the instruments and leave them on the bed, and the kids would grab them and just start playing.

Your brother Scott developed into one of the all-time great fiddlers.
Daddy said, "Scott is the only child we got with a fiddle wrist, so he'll be playing the fiddle," and that's how he started. About six or eight months later, they had a fiddle contest in the Constitution Hall. It was Chubby Wise and Curly Fox, a big bunch of fiddlers. Scott won. I'll never forget the night We were playing down at the Club Hillbilly the night he won, and they come carrying him in on their shoulders in the place we were playing, because he'd been down at the contest. We were, of course, kind of surprised that he'd won, being a kid and first starting, you know.

He was apparently not only a technical virtuoso but also a great showman.
Well, he could lay down on the floor and sort of bow his back up, put the fiddle underneath there, and play better than most folks could standing up.

They had a cover story in Bluegrass Unlimited on Buzz Busby, and he talks about Scotty there. They were just teenagers. [Ed. note: a young Jack Clement was in the band as well]
Well, they were too young to play in clubs, and they got fired because of that two or three times. "You boys can't play here because you're underage." You know.

There was even one story where Buzz had gotten in a car accident on the way to a job. They had to have some people fill in with his band, and that ended up being the first version of the Country Gentlemen...
Did Charlie Waller [of the Country Gentlemen] ever tell you how he met the Stonemans? We lived out in Carmody Hills, which is three or four miles outside of the District, and it was not exactly what you'd call the elite section. It was dark — no street lights. Charlie had a girl in the car with him, so he'd thought he was gonna go out somewhere and park and smooch. He parked on this little street with no lights on it, and when he started smooching he kept hearing music. He was parked up the street from our house. So he came down there — they came down — and then from then on Charlie was there all the time.

This is during the forties?
I'll show you a picture of how Daddy dressed us then: See the boys wore straw hats, red handkerchiefs, and bib overalls, and the girls always wore cotton dresses. We played all the clubs. You see, the kids like this were so little. They couldn't play in the District after 10 o'clock at night. We would either play in the edge of Maryland, or, if we played in the District, the little ones left the stage at 10 o'clock. Lots of times we'd go play somewhere until 10 o'clock and then go to Maryland and play the rest of the night. There was the Stoneman Brothers, Pop and his Little Pebbles, and then the Stoneman Family. In other words, if one place wouldn't pay but so much, then we'd go somewhere else, and some of the rest would go somewhere else. The Bluegrass Champions was a spin off of it, of the group. We knew that Scott was very talented. All of us knew that. So we said, "What we'll do — all of us will put money together, and we'll get Scott training, music training." We took him to two or three different teachers. You know what they told us? "Don't waste your money. If we were to try and train him in music, it might mess what he's got"

Yeah, he was such a pure talent, and then, sadly, he died young, barely forty.
We were raised up hungry kids, and I had never seen anybody in a night club, a place where we'd play, say "Have a sandwich." They'd say, "Have a drink." So often it ends up being the backbone of a musician — a liquid backbone. It ain't no good, because it soon runs out, and it run out on Scott. Now Scott hadn't had a drink for a year before the day he got drunk, and that was it What he did is he got drunk, and he had been taking Valium, I guess. They said that's what killed him.

There's a real sad tradition of that in country music, and, of course, Keith Whitley is just the latest.
Because of [Whitley's death] somebody at WSM Radio said the other day they wouldn't be playing no more drinking songs, you know? And so somebody who knew the Stonemans --- a friend of ours, Bob Patten, called him up and said, "Well, if you're not going to be playing any more drinking songs, I wish you'd stop playing the sex songs too." So the guy said, "What would we play then?" He said, "Try some of the Stoneman songs."

Scott also played banjo. He does some on that "live" hootenanny album done in the early sixties. It seems that no matter what new wave of music came along the Stonemans were flexible enough to adapt to it.
Of course, the Kingston Trio was playing some of the same songs Pop had been doing in the twenties. Daddy was considered a popular singer by the Carters, and he didn't sing every kind of song, but he was capable of doing it all. He didn't draw a line --- that's traditional, or that's folk, or that's country. It's interesting because just when bluegrass was getting popular in the early fifties, the Stonemans were right there with that. And then they excluded us because for years we had been using an electric [guitar]. We had to compete with rock 'n' roll groups in order to make a living, so we used electric. In other words, you could turn your amps up. This is also about the time of the "Mountain Music on the Autoharp" anthology that Mike Seeger collected for Folkways. He came out to your house in Maryland. Now, most of those were recorded in 1961, and there were a few things he did with Kilby Snow. I think Kilby Snow is the only one who recorded in 1957, but Mike says in the album notes that Pop was the one who introduced him to Kilby, or told him about him. Let me tell you something about these Folkways records. We have recorded on I don't know how many labels. In fact, I don't know how many labels anymore that Daddy was on, or how many names he used, but we recorded a lot of labels. You know that. We've done a lot of labels. The only two that's ever really paid us anything was a Disney/Vista record and Folkways. Folkways didn't pay all that much, but Daddy always said they're honest. They'd send us a little bit along. A couple years later there were some solo autoharp gospel songs recorded by Pop that you released in the early eighties. I'll tell you how that come about They wanted another album at Starday. Daddy took his contract back because they wasn't doing him right. Mr. Pierce said, "You owe me another album." So Jack (Clement) took just Daddy into the studio, just Daddy and his autoharp, and got that master for that album. He got gospel on the autoharp and sent it to Starday, but then, of course, Starday turned it down. He wanted the whole Family. Daddy said it wasn't in the agreement. He said, "You want another album of Pop Stoneman. You got one." So then, when it was turned down, Jack Clement threw it in his attic in a box, and I found it. I sat down and listen to it and put it down just like it was. Since then we've gone back in the studio and added guitar and bass to the original track. Well, it seemed like later in his career he ended up playing more on the autoharp because he had all the lads playing every other instrument. Yeah. It's kind of hard to have two guitars. Daddy would play a guitar every now and then on the show. Whatever he wanted to play. But mostly he left it to the children, the younger ones. See, Daddy'd always take the smallest ones with him. In other words, he'd baby sit with them on stage. The older ones would go off somewhere else to play. When you grew old enough to go somewhere else, Daddy would take another younger one with him. He'd baby sit with his children on stage, and many a times you'd be interested in something on the dance floor, some boy or some girl, you know? And Daddy would go, "A-hem" [clears her throat]. "Calm down," in other words. Or he'd just reach over and get the fiddle bow --- and crack! If you were sitting that far from him, he'd reach for the fiddle bow and go crack — across your head!

So you personally started playing autoharp near the end of his career?
In 1966, because Daddy was getting old, and nobody else had any interest in it. I only played a couple of times while Daddy was alive, in the show with the Family, but in my own show, I would always play the autoharp. I did this after I saw Daddy getting so sick and none of the rest of his children were serious about the autoharp. They didn't want to play it. Mother played clawhammer banjo, so I said, "I'll play clawhammer banjo, and I'll play the autoharp," which I had never done; and "I'll play the Jew's harp," which I also had never done, but I knew that the rest of them weren't going to do it.

After your father died in 1968, the family's music kept going strong. At one point you played the Fillmore West?
I think it was 1969 we played there. We played at the Fillmore West with Van Morrison and Joe Cocker. Can you imagine? We opened for them, and I'll say this, it really was quite a weird thing for us, because that time was the acid rock era. Can you imagine us --- supposed to be country, hillbilly --- being in the show with them? It was quite a thing, because we were up on a high stage, and they had no seats below. People were sitting on the floor. The smoke was so thick --- the marijuana was out of this world --- that we got enough of it up on stage to have hallucinations and couldn't sleep that night. The next night, we had such a crowd that the night after that they had to move it over to the Winter Garden. It was really quite a thing!

Now, that must have been one of the strangest...
It was the strangest thing. We have done some strange things. We opened for James Brown, and my brother, Jimmy, is an epileptic. He plays bass, and it just so happened he had a seizure on stage. Then he got back up and played real quick, James Brown thought it was a gas. He wanted to hire Jimmy for bass. He went up on stage and said, "Man, I love you," and all them folks out there pushed the fence almost down on us, you know.

You were selected to do the soundtrack for Disneyworld's Country Bear's Jamboree. You are the voices on the soundtrack for those mechanical bears that are playing instruments.
We had to disguise our voices. They'd say, "Do it like you'd think a bear would do it," and that was it In fact, Mr. Roy Disney gave each one of us a Mickey Mouse watch. In fact, my husband wears it all the time. I still have mine. I wouldn't take a pretty penny for this.

Your sister Roni has been one of the mainstays on Hee Haw, a show that's been a huge success, syndicated for twenty years.
I'll never forget what Mommy told her. She had to dress her up like, you know, Ida Lee, and Mamma told her, "Lord, if I had to look like that to get a job, I don't think I ever would."
Roni Stoneman book

I guess the obvious question now is what is happening with the next generation? L'il Van, who is the baby, has sons who are very good. They play the Top40 Country [as the Stoneman Brothers], but they also do traditional. Van plays with them. They come up and do the show sometimes, my radio show. They play good bluegrass — great harmony.

Author's Note: For years Patsy hosted her radio program on WSVT in Smyrna, Tennessee. After this interview, Patsy and the family released an album on Old Homestead Records, For God and Country. It features Van, Donna, Jimmy, Patsy, and Van's two sons. Autoharp is used as backup on most cuts.






Ernest V. Pop Stoneman and family - Country Music Hall of Fame 2008


Ernest V. Pop Stoneman and family - Country Music Hall of Fame 2008


Click to listen Ernest V. Pop Stoneman and family - Country Music Hall of Fame 2008


Click to listen Ernest V. Pop Stoneman and family - Country Music Hall of Fame 2008


Click to listen Ernest V. Pop Stoneman and family - Country Music Hall of Fame 2008