Each year in July, members of the Statler Brothers take their annual vacation. It is practically the only time of the year that the four of them scatter far enough to the winds to be out of each other's sight.
But, as always, when vacation is over, all roads lead back to Sta unton, Va., their home town. There, Don Reid coaches the baseball team on which two of his sons play, and brother Harold is a member of the Downtown Preservation Society. Both Reids (the only real brothers in the group) and Phil Balsey are also elders at the Olivet Presbyterian Church. It's the same church where they got their start singing together in the choir, along with the fourth Statler, Lew De Witt, in the mid-1950s. They later branched out with a gospel quartet called The Kingsmen. Jimmy Fortune replaced De Witt after De Witt was sidelined with an illness in 1982.
"We lie about the brothers and we lie about the Statlers," laughs Don as he explains how, years ago, they stole their now famous name off the label of a tissue box in a hotel room. "There's not a Statler in the bunch, and there are only two brothers. You can't believe nothin' you read!"
In music-business parlance, the Statlers, who will appear at Wolf Trap this Saturday, long ago became country superstars. Since 1962 -- when Johnny Cash first heard them perform at Watermelon Park in Berryville, Va., and landed them a spot on his roadshow and his record label -- they've won three Grammy awards, and a record-breaking eight Vocal Group of the Year awards from the prestigious Country Music Association. They've sold more than 10 million LPs.
With memorable songs -- bittersweet, nostalgia-tinged musical vignettes like "Flowers on the Wall," "Class of '57," "Do You Remember These," "The Official Historian on Shirley Jean Berell" -- the Statlers have captured the everyday preoccupations of middle America with lyric detail and emotional accuracy. No less a literary figure than Kurt Vonnegut has dubbed them "America's poets"; he once suggested that "Class of '57" should "become our national anthem for a little while."
But from a sentimental point of view, the Statlers are first and last Staunton's home-town heroes. All five (including both Fortune and De Witt) were born and raised either in this central Virginia city of 25,000 or in the nearby environs of the Shenandoah Valley. And that's where they all make their homes today.
Each year, for the past 15 years, the Statlers have raised bundles of money for local charities with their annual July Fourth "Happy Birthday America" picnic held in Staunton's Gypsy Hill Park. This summer the event drew more than 75,000 -- all just to see the Statlers. With typical drollness, brother Harold concedes that the annual event has long since become more than a "picnic." "You ought to try to see 75,000 people scramble to get on one blanket," he quips.
"If most people go to write about their past, they have to rely on their memories, but we have it all right here with us," adds Don Reid. "In fact, my office, where I'm sitting now, is in the same room where I went to the seventh grade. Everyday we walk through the same doors that we used to walk through to go to school."
The group members recently bought their alma mater in Staunton and turned it into their own office/museum. Phil Balsey is said to have celebrated the occasion by throwing a rock through the window of what used to be the principal's office.
Not surprisingly, the past is almost always palpable in the Statler's music. (They are quick to point out Staunton's historical significance as the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson; and for two days during the Revolutionary War, the temporary American capital. Their four-part harmonies have specific links to the tradition of the rural white gospel quartet, and they echo with a comfortably old-fashioned Main Street appeal of the barbershop quartets of yesteryear.
Even their hit revival of Gene Pitney's "Hello Mary Lou" earlier this summer seems consciously to resonate with nostalgia for the 1950s and Ricky Nelson's version. In the Statlers' original songs, it is the past that most often stands as a beacon, an immutable yardstick against which present-day dreams and expectations are sometimes painfully measured.
Don Reid, who along with brother Harold wrote "The Class of '57," has never been to a class reunion, and actually graduated from high school in the 1960s. "We saw the title in TV Guide," he recalls. "It was the name of an old 'Ironside' episode. We loved the title so we just wrote the song and used our imaginations about going back to a reunion and all the feelings that come with it. You can put any year on it, and the lyrics still work."
It is "Flowers on the Wall," though, that stands in the minds of many Statler aficionados as the group's creative high-water mark. It is also the song that first put the group on the map. Written by De Witt (who now resides in nearby Waynesboro, Va., where he is making a promising recovery from Crohn's disease and cautiously testing the water for a solo career), it sold over a million copies and beat out the Beatles and the Supremes to win a Grammy in the "contemporary" category in 1965.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more incisive rendering of smalltown ennui, where despair is reduced to its smallest and bleakest particles.
Smokin' cigarettes and watchin'
Now don't tell me
I've nothin' to do.
If some of the Statlers' more emotionally complex and lyrically sophisticated compositions seem almost literary, it is no accident.
"My favorite American writer from when I was first introduced to him back in high school is John O'Hara," explains Don Reid, one of the group's principal writers and an avid reader and book collector. "He gave me something of social observation, of life, of human nature, that I've never gotten anyplace else. I've read every word he's written, and I think I've probably put some of his thoughts to music."
It's not surprising that the Statlers' hobbies -- like their music -- often involve the artifacts and symbols of bygone decades. It's all seemingly part of a creative process that involves filtering out what appears strong and good about the past and using it as both anchor and barometer while moving cautiously, and sometimes unwillingly, into the future. Hence song titles like "Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott" and "Things Aren't Like They Used to Be."
"Every time we go on tour, we each bring a box full of video cassettes," Don Reid explains. "We watch plenty of old westerns and old mysteries and comedies from the '30s and '40s. Harold recently went through a whole bunch of tapes of the old 'Lowell Thomas Remembers' series. When we're on the road, driving from one date to the next, we'll sometimes watch four or five films a day."
The Statlers know full well that their conservative and backward-glancing musical stance is like a security blanket to their multitude of fans. "People want something secure to hear and identify with," Harold Reid once observed, and the Statlers would no sooner change their musical approach than they would trade their comfortable home-town existence for "the rat race of some musical capital."
Things have not even been substantially changed by the departure of De Witt after 22 years and his replacement by Jimmy Fortune.
"The image had been set, the mold had been made, and we were just looking for someone to fill the shoes," Don Reid says.
De Witt, no doubt, is still sorely missed by the fans. But Fortune, who, before joining the Statlers, was just another aspiring musician working in a central Virginia car dealership and playing lounges by night, is more than pulling his own weight. "Elizabeth" -- which he claims is the first song he ever wrote to completion -- became the Statlers' first No. 1 record in quite some time when it topped the charts last year.
Always as busy in the studio as they are on stage (they still journey to Nashville to make records), the Statlers have finished a Christmas album and are hard at work on a gospel album as well as a country LP.
In a voice that is almost reassuring, Don Reid makes it clear that the results of their most recent studio sessions are "nothing drastic, no big changes. There won't be any of that. Just more Statler Brothers music. We hope it's fresh, we hope it's good."