Drawn from more than seventy-five hours of recorded interviews, Pressing On reveals Roni's gifts as a master storyteller. With characteristic spunk and candor, she describes her "pooristic" ("way beyond 'poverty-stricken'") Appalachian childhood, and how her brother Scott taught her to play the challenging and innovative three-finger banjo picking style developed by Earl Scruggs. She also warmly recounts Hee Haw-era adventures with Minnie Pearl, Roy Clark, and Buck Owens; her encounters as a musician with country greats like Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, June Carter, and Patsy Cline; as well as her personal struggles with shiftless and violent husbands, her relationships with her children, and her musical life after Hee Haw.
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By Roni Stoneman
University of Illinois PressCopyright © 2007 University of Illinois Press
All right reserved.
I think it would be nice to begin with the story of how Daddy and Mommy met. None of us kids knew about that until one day in the sixties when we were on the road-the Stoneman family band going from place to place, as we did, to play show after show. We were riding along, and, well, I was bored. I said, "Daddy, how'd you meet Momma?" I can remember it like it was yesterday.
"I heard her give her first cry, that's how."
"You did what?"
"I heard her give her first cry."
"How was that?" I said. "You all weren't related, were you?"
"No! Don't you ever say that! That's against the laws of God, no!"
"Then how did you hear her give her first cry?"
"Well, you know my Daddy, Elisha Stoneman, was a mountain preacher around the Galax area. And any time a woman that was with child ..." (Daddy never used the word "pregnant." He would say "in a family way" or "a woman that was with child.") "Whenever a woman that was with child was having trouble giving birth, they would call the minister. They had the midwife but they always called the preacher and the doctor if the situation was desperate. Well, my father set forth 'cause Bill Frost's wife, Pattie Frost, was having a bad time. I was about eight or nineyears old, and I got on the back of the horse with your Grandpa Elisha. It was a crisp fall night and I was cold, and we rode all the way across the mountain 'til we got to a cabin. The cabin had just two rooms, with the kitchen off from it. This was the usual way. The kitchen would be off from the other rooms because of the heat in the summertime, and in case of fire. So I walked up on the rock porch with Grandpa Elisha, and a man met him at the door that was real nervous. It was Bill Frost. Off to the right you could hear a couple of women in the room with Pattie Frost. Well, your Grandpa Elisha was taken into that room and I stayed in the sitting room. I sat down, cross-legged, Indian style, in front of the fireplace, and was warming myself, and rubbing my hands. I heard a lot of praying going on-hellfire and brimstone, really getting down into it. Then I heard a baby give a loud cry, and soon they brought it out wrapped in a blanket and gave it to me, and told me to pray with all the people in that sitting room for it to have a long life. So I held that baby and prayed. And the baby turned out to be the woman I would later marry, your mother!"
* * *
So that was how my parents met. It was in 1900.
Now to my grandparents. The one grandparent who was not there in that cabin was Daddy's mother, Rebecca. She had died, which is maybe why he was so cold that night, not having the proper clothing. Daddy said she was a very quiet, very strict southern lady. He remembered her being terribly sick and then dying of what they called childbed fever. Grandpa Elisha remarried, but he and this wife finally ended up in a parting of the ways, so Daddy never really had the warmth of a mother in his young life.
Grandpa Elisha was a serious man. He did not believe in fiddle playing or banjo picking. He thought the fiddle was of the devil because it made you want to dance and sing and "frolic." Grandpa Elisha didn't believe in "frolicking." I think he was not a very easy person to get along with. Starched-that's the word for people like that. They don't want this, and they don't want that. He thought everyone had to go along with the church or you would die and go to hell for it.
My mother's parents were totally different. Bill Frost, the other man in the cabin, my other grandpa, not only believed in frolicking, he was a ringleader, being one of the finest old Virginia fiddle players around. He told me he played for lots of the frolicking in the cabins in the Galax area. They'd roll back the rug and everybody would dance, and he and a couple of his buddies would pick and sing all night. He said the men were not allowed to drink in front of the ladies, but they would usually have hard cider or something stashed away in the springhouse. So there would be a lot of trips out to the springhouse before the evening was over. The whole idea was to pretend they were not partaking-though when their eyes got red and they got to reeling a little bit, well, it's hard to believe the ladies were as dumb as the men thought they were.
Grandpa Frost and his buddies would also play music in the churches. Most everybody thought that was okay, to play your fiddle or your banjo in the church meeting for the gospel hymns.
Grandpa Frost was not only a great musician, he was a great storyteller. And I adored him. When I was little and my parents and us kids had gone to live up in Maryland, Momma used to send me back to the mountains in Galax for three months in the summer. Grandma got in the habit of going to bed around dark, and then me and Grandpa would go out on the front porch, and Grandpa would tell stories. He specialized in scary ones.
One night he said, "See right over yonder, that little clearing? Well, once there was a cabin there, and a man lived in it with his wife and three little girls. But he got messing with some woman and he wanted to leave his wife. So he set the house afire, and he locked that door where they couldn't get out! He killed his wife and three little girls!"
"When I was a young man," Grandpa continued, "I'd go courting at night over the mountain. Now if I wanted to make a shortcut coming back, I'd have to pass through that clearing, but all the people said it was haunted, and that at night you could hear the screams and cries of that woman and those little girls.
"People refused to go near the place. And my momma kept saying, 'Bill Frost, you come up through that clearing again, them haints is gonna get you!' Well, I didn't pay much attention to her, your great-grandmother. So, on one particular night I had just come over the hill with my horse down into that clearing. It was a full moon night, so bright you could see everything, and the nighttime mountain sounds-those hills were alive with sound.
"I looked over to the hearth of that old burnt-out cabin, and there was this white thing sitting there!
"Here I am on my horse, with this oil lamp shining on this spooky white thing! I rode closer. 'Who is it?' I said. Nobody answered. 'By God, who is it?' I cried. And I was about ready to shoot. But I got off of my horse and walked over and by the barrel of my gun lifted the sheet right up. And there was my momma's face! I almost shot my mother! She was trying to scare me! She waited for me, all that time, by herself down in that terrible place with all those wailing haints!"
That night when I went to bed I smothered myself with blankets.
Grandma Pattie Frost wasn't always telling stories. But when she said something ... well, we knew it counted. One time Grandma said a really strange thing to me. I was about eight or nine years old. All of a sudden she looked at me real funny, right in the eyes, and she said, "A man who will have children and will not support and take care of his little ones, he's not a good person. He's not favored in the eyes of God."
It was as if she saw my whole future.
On to the younger generation, Daddy and Mommy. I think Daddy's childhood was pretty harsh, no mother and riding around the mountains with Elisha. But after Daddy married Hattie Frost, Momma, things started looking up. One day when he was walking by a store, he heard a record of a friend of his singing, Henry Whitter. Daddy thought he could do better. So Momma encouraged him and encouraged him, and he went up to New York and he convinced those record people to try him. And that led to him doing lots of recording sessions in New York, sometimes with Momma, and sometimes with other people. They mostly sang the old traditional mountain songs, but they occasionally sang current ones, such as the one about the Titanic (which it seems Daddy wrote part of, or at least arranged in the way that became famous): Oh it was sad, it was sad / It was sad when that great ship went down / Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives / It was sad when that great ship went down. That song was a big hit in 1925-people said it sold a million copies. In these recording sessions Daddy would play guitar, and there would be other traditional instruments-banjo, mandolin, fiddle, autoharp-and a lot of great harmony singing. The first "records" they made were really wax cylinders. Then after the wax cylinders came those old 78s. Daddy recorded with a number of different companies, including Edison's. I still have a few checks with Edison's name on them.
New York was of course a big challenge for a mountain preacher's son. Daddy would often tell about the time when they were almost arrested. He took his band into a big New York bank, and they were carrying their instruments with them. Then suddenly it sounded like there was a loud air raid and policemen ran in from all sides. They thought they were going to rob the bank because robbers used to keep machine guns in fiddle cases. My poor innocent Daddy was protesting, "No, no! They're just instruments! We're just hillbillies from the Blue Ridge Mountains!"
Maybe it was experiences like that that made Daddy decide it would be good if the record companies came down to Virginia! Anyway he was the one who arranged the famous Bristol Sessions. In 1927 he got Ralph Peer from the record company to come to Bristol to record the local musicians. They put ads in the paper announcing the auditions and mentioning all the money Ernest V. Stoneman was making by recording his songs. So lots of country musicians showed up, including the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Many people say the Bristol Sessions were where country music was born because those musicians went on to be superstars in the thirties and forties. And then in the sixties the Carter family songs were picked up again in the folk revival, songs like "Wildwood Flower" and "Keep on the Sunny Side." All that is true. But it's also true that Daddy and Momma recorded more songs at the Bristol Sessions than anybody else. At the recent celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Bristol Sessions, the town named a road Stoneman Family Drive.
Later we'd always tease Daddy when he'd play those old records, because all the songs were sad. I'd fall on the floor and pretend I was dying. And he'd say, "Dadblame it, if you don't get up and quit acting like that, I'm gonna knock you plumb across the room! You can laugh all you want to. I made more money than any of you'll ever make!" We would also tease him about his guitar-playing style, which was very simple. His strum was boom chick boom chick boom chick chick chick. Played with two finger picks and a thumb pick. The thumb is the leader. When he played the autoharp, it was basically the same thing-three picks and the motion came from the wrist.
Anyway, Daddy was right. He did make a lot of money, was one of the richest men in the area. Then the Depression hit, and people couldn't afford to buy records. Since he was a kind man, he had signed on to a lot of loans for his neighbors in Galax. So the family went from high cotton to sheer poorism. I call it poorism because anybody can be poverty-stricken, that's nothing. The kind of poor my family was was way beyond that. At one point in 1932 the sheriff got in the car with Daddy, about to repossess it, the one thing my parents had left, until Daddy outwitted him. Daddy said that he'd give it over as soon as he could stop, just behind the fence up ahead. But the fence, as he knew, was the county line, so the sheriff had no lawful right in the other county. Daddy got to keep the car and continue on his way.
Which was a good thing because my mother and older brothers and sisters (I hadn't been born yet) were also in the car. Daddy was moving the family up to the Washington area to live. There he was hoping he could get jobs with the government or with churches doing carpenter work. And he did. He was a very busy man, at times doing four jobs at once. But none of them paid much, and sometimes there was no work at all, so the family remained pooristic. He would also be trying to earn more by playing music in the evenings. There were a lot of other people from around Galax who had gone up to the Washington area to find work, and they of course liked his kind of music.
Daddy was very clever, and he came up with several musical inventions. One was a box that he put the autoharp on so it sounded much louder-the box worked like a resonator. Another was a special pick. The normal picks would just fly off with the kind of playing he was doing. What he designed was a pick that went up the finger. I was part of that invention. I used to bring him things to see, like old toys I had found. And one time I said, "Look at this toy, Daddy. It's got a wire in it." He said, "Wait a minute, let me see that." He took his pinchers out and he studied the wire and looked at his finger. And then he made a pick with a spiral. I remember watching him, a little kid standing by his chair, proud that I was able to bring him something that he liked and needed. The pick's now in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Anytime when he wasn't working or playing music, he was reading. He especially liked geography. He used to say you can't go wrong with geography books: "Land's gonna stay that way unless an earthquake comes." Turned out he was right. Later he won twenty thousand dollars on one of those quiz shows, The Big Surprise, answering questions on geography.
I've saved my mother for last, the newborn baby that cried so loud in the cabin. People never gave her enough credit. It was always my father getting all the glory. Which is great. I'm really proud of him. I've always felt I was a very rich woman, and I was a very rich little girl, because I had a father like him. But my mother, Hattie Ivana Frost, also deserves a lot of credit. She played banjo, the old-time mountain style, brilliantly. She could tune the banjo eight different ways. Grandpa Jones on Hee Haw brought that up to me, and I went home and asked Momma about it. "Yeah," she said, "he once told me he wished he could tune the banjo as many ways as I could." And she was the fiddle player on many of Daddy's records. The reason I get so upset about Momma not getting credit is because I do not understand it. This is how they wrote up the Bristol Sessions in the paper-"And a young matron played the fiddle with Ernest Stoneman"!
Aside from being a great musician, Momma was very beautiful and very sweet. When she was a young girl, she was engaged several times. But she wasn't just a gallivant. She was a true lady. She was very fashionable, took care of herself, had her face fixed all the time and her hat to match her purse, and her purse to match her shoes. Even when we got very poor, she took care to look the best she could.
And she was very strict about manners. For instance, ladies should never sit with their legs apart. You always have to put your knees together when you cross your legs-you have to touch your other ankle. Momma made sure I learned that well. One day I'd been playing horseshoes with the boys. And I came in and I went "Well, I beat them!" and I sat down so my ankle was crossing on top of my other knee, the way a man sits. Momma reached over and grabbed me: "Don't you ever do that again!" That night I got the worst whupping I ever had, cried for about twenty-five minutes.
Another lesson from Momma: "Don't ever stoop over. You gotta kneel. You bend with your knees and then pull yourself up. It's not ladylike to do it the other way." This turned out to be a very useful habit to get into since I would often be on the stage wearing my short dresses and have to pick up a banjo or a guitar lying on the ground. In fact all of Momma's etiquette advice turned out to be important. When I would be playing honky-tonks and horrible environments, acting like a lady made it safer.
What I'm saying is that Momma was a proud southern belle. She learned all this from her mom, Granny Frost, and from Aunt Phinney, Granny's sister. These were Virginia women, but they were not from the deep deep hills. Even though they went through hard times, they always tried. Grandpa worked in the mines and in the furniture factory, and sometimes he only made a dollar a day, but when Momma was about eight, he bought her a porcelain doll.
Before the Depression, as I said, Momma had a good life being married to Daddy. My older sister Grace remembered having pretty little silk dresses and nice shoes. In the thirties, when the Depression hit, you can imagine how it must have been for Momma-to go from high cotton into stark naked nothing.
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