There came a day when Scott Stoneman, national fiddling champion nine years running, couldn't stand the constant barrage of music from his parents and 14 siblings one more day.He got a job as a carpenter.
But his brothers wouldn't let him go; they followed him to work and every time he drove in a nail they applauded. Finally, he threw down his hammer and went back to the fiddle.
The 15 Stoneman children never really had a chance to escape. They're part of the longest continually performing family in country music, the "Gunsmoke" of American folk culture. The grand old man of the clan, Ernest "Pop" Stoneman, first recorded in 1910 and had a million-selling record, "The Sinking of the Titanic," in 1924. They can trace the family tree back through their fiddling grandfather to the Irish great-great-great-grandfather who composed "Piney Woods Girl."
There are three members - Patsy, Van and Jimmy - still traveling as the Stoneman Family. Twins Gene and Dean, along with Scott's daughter, Sandy, are the Maryland-based Stoneman Brothers. Roni is a regular cast member of "Hee Ha,"; Donna is a well-known religious performer.
Those, plus Grace and Eddie, a plant supervisor in Suitland, gathered for a family reunion concert last night at the Smithsonian's Baird Auditorium. For them it was "official" recognition of their place in American musical history.
"It's like they gave us a plaque," said Patsy, and eigh heads nodded. "We couldn't be more honored."
The Stoneman remember being without shoes, without food, without money. They remember stories about eight other children who died in infancy. They remember being fed by policemen and at fire stations. They remember the house in Carmody Hills, Md., that only had a canvas roof for three years. They remember moving to Washington from Galax, Va., during the Depression - nine children and two adults - piled into the car which was their only possession. They remember sleeping a half-dozen to a bed; Roni once said she was never alone in her life until she found an abandoned car in the woods and crawled into the back seat.
Everything they remember is tied up with music.
"It was all we had to play with; it was our toys," says Roni. "There was music all day and sometimes all night."
"It was our entertainment," says her older sister Patsy. "We didn't have dolls to play with - the babies were the dolls."
"I got so I couldn't go to sleep without Scott playin' and the light blazin' in my eyes," says Van.
Jimmy was passing the hat when he was 5 years old. Van was still "sleeping on the pillow" when a fight erupted in the Central Avenue club where the family played weekends. Gene would go swimming until his ears were so stopped up he had to watch his father's fingers to know what key he was supposed to be playing in.
"Pop" Stoneman made the musical instruments himself, often jerry-rigging them together like the bass, familiarly known as "The Whomper," that was a drum topped by a neck and four strings. There were not always enough instruments to go around.
"You had to fight to play something," recalls Roni, who "picks" banjo. "You had to carry it around with you, hang it around your neck or someone would get it. It was like losing your chair."
It was the same way with cake," adds Donna, now a religious singer. "You had to put one hand over it while you ate with the other."
There was intense competition among the children. When Scott (who died in 1968) began playing, the others put the fiddle out of their minds. "We were stubborn about somebody being better," says Donna. "If you played a song better than me, I wouldn't learn it from you."
They rehearsed often, and neighbors constantly dropped in to pick and listen. They played on Washington radio stations, and in the late '40s on a television program aired Saturday nights from Constitution Hall.
("Donna came home and told me a girl at school said she saw us on television," says Roni, "and I said, 'What's television?'")
"We were always in trouble with the school board," says Dean. "They said bein' on stage so young was interferin' with out educations." They all are conscious this is true - none has even a high school diploma - but the law has been laid down that all the grandchildren must graduate from high school before joining the family business.
After years of extreme physical and professional proximity, the Stonemans are a close, affectionate family whose conversations are punctuated with laughter and jokes and hugs. The grandchildren and in-laws and even a nephew-by-marriage, now divorced, hang around the clan until it looks like its own country music convention.
"The music isn't going to end with this batch of Stonemans," says Dean. "I have children, and Van and Roni and Scott's kids. . ."
"Music has meant too much for us to quit," says Patsy firmly. "We have a tradition." CAPTION: Picture, The Stonemans, the longest continually performing family in country music, pose before their bus, by Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post