A native of southwest Virginia and longtime Washingtonian, Stoneman was one of country’s pioneers and survivors. His 1926 hit, “The Sinking of the Titanic,” recorded in New York, was one of the first big sellers in the emerging hillbilly music market. He made hundreds of cylinder and 78-rpm records, often accompanied by his wife, Hattie, on fiddle and vocals; she was one of the first female country musicians on record.
But Burns’s film doesn’t mention Hattie, and Stoneman’s quick cameo is mostly a device to introduce country’s first bona fide superstars: Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family — A.P., Sara and Mother Maybelle. Stoneman’s now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t appearance, however brief, is long overdue: It was Stoneman, the top hillbilly artist for the Victor record company, who persuaded his bosses to come South to record the local talent on their native ground. Victor set up a makeshift studio in a Bristol, Tenn., hotel, where, in 1927, Rodgers and the Carters recorded huge sellers that launched the modern country music industry.
Pop lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929, then faded from the scene — but only for a time. His seminal work in the ’20s turned out to be just a prelude to a remarkable second career in Washington, where he settled his family. He and his talented brood — he and Hattie had nearly two dozen children — were fixtures of Washington’s postwar country music boom. They won talent show contests and packed local honky-tonks. They performed on radio and TV, including “The Jimmy Dean Show,” introduced thusly: “There’s 23 of ’em, but we’ve got five!”
In 1964, Pop and the family band appeared in full Kodachrome splendor on the cover of “The Great Old Timer at the Capital,” recorded for the Nashville label Starday Records. The band, in bib overalls and bandannas and straw hats, is shown playing music at a traffic island on Pennsylvania Avenue with a ghostly U.S. Capitol in the background. Pop sits on a hay bale with his autoharp, flanked by his kids, including daughters Roni on banjo and Donna on mandolin; the family beagle is at Donna’s feet. “They wanted us to go the hillbilly route, so I dressed like Daisy Mae,” recalls Donna, referring to the character in Al Capp’s comic strip “Li’l Abner” whose standard outfit was an off-the-shoulder crop top and short shorts.
The family toured college campuses and folk festivals, and eventually settled in Nashville. By 1967, they’d won the Country Music Association’s vocal group of the year award. Pop died in 1968 at age 75, just as country was going mainstream.
For sisters Roni and Donna, the Ken Burns segment on Pop is welcome, if also thin gruel, especially with so much focus on the famous “First Family of Country Music,” the Carters. “It’s always Mother Maybelle! Mother Maybelle!” says Roni, scorching the phone line. “Well, what about our mother? Where in the cat-hair is Hattie? Mama had been recording with Daddy on Edison years before the Carters. Well, p--- on it!” Then, her voice still in fine fettle, she began to sing an old-time tear-jerker recorded by Pop in his heyday, “Somebody’s Waiting for Me”; the family had performed the song when they won a talent show at D.C.’s Constitution Hall in 1947.
Now in their 80s, the sisters watched the PBS series in Nashville where they reside. Their favorite part is a close-up of a young Pop in a record-label publicity shot from his glory years in the ’20s. He wears a suit in a pensive pose, resting his head in his hand. Neither Donna nor Roni had seen it before. “It’s the greatest picture I’ve ever seen of Daddy,” says Donna. “He looks very serious and very handsome.”
During his final years, Pop watched as the Carters and Jimmie Rodgers and others who came after were elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, the industry’s highest honor. “Daddy was proud, but he wasn’t one to whine,” says Roni. At his death bed, some of the siblings wanted to comfort him, so they fibbed that he’d finally been inducted. The sisters remember Pop saying, “Well, it’s about time!”
He was finally inducted in 2008 — more than 40 years after he was eligible. Some insiders explain this snub by pointing out that Pop’s early recording career predated the Grand Ole Opry and the rise of Nashville as the center of the country music industry. Even Donna and Roni say they didn’t hear much about his early career or his role in the Bristol sessions until after his death. “We had no idea of the extent of his and Mom’s career in country music and what they had done when they were young,” says Donna. In fact, growing up in the family shack in Carmody Hills, Md., in Prince George’s County, the Stoneman kids would heat up Pop’s old 78 records in the kerosene stove and bend the softened shellac into bowls.
Donna and Roni continue to carry on the family legacy started by Pop nearly a century ago. They recently performed at the induction of their late brother Scotty at the National Fiddler Hall of Fame in Tulsa. And in January, Roni will star in a new show on RFD-TV, the network that features reruns of “Hee Haw,” where she spent two decades as a cast member — best known for her role as Ida Lee Nagger, the harpy housewife perpetually haranguing her no ’count husband.
“Daddy didn’t have money to leave us anything for inheritance,” says Donna. “But he sure did leave us an inheritance of music.”
Eddie Dean is a writer in Maryland.