At the 2021 IBMA Awards Show in Raleigh, NC, the Stoneman Family, Lynn Morris and Alison Krauss will be inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame with their plaques and memorabilia soon to grace the walls of the Bluegrass Hall of fame and Museum in Owensboro, KY.
The addition of the Stoneman Family marks the history of a large and talented group of family members that can be traced back to the mid-1920s. After perfecting their own version of early country and Appalachian mountain music in Grayson County, VA, the family troupe evolved to embrace the new form of music that would eventually be called bluegrass. The late 1880s and early 1990s marks a fascinating time for the music industry. Thomas Edison had invented a prototype of the phonograph in the 1870s yet it would take a while before the technology would develop into the vinyl record albums and 45-RPM singles that we know of today, especially with the resurrection of vinyl as a source of music in these modern times. That early 20th century era, unfortunately, also marked a time when amazing musicians did not make the cut and were never captured on a recording. Bill Monroe’s musical mentor and gig partner Arnold Schulz is a perfect example of that phenomenon as we will never hear what he sounded like when playing his guitar and fiddle.
Ernest “Pop” Stoneman, however, born in 1893, would learn early on about the importance of taking advantage of this new way of producing and selling songs. The patriarch of the Stoneman Family, Pop and his band were the first artists to be captured at Ralph Peer’s infamous Bristol Sessions in 1927, which produced ground-breaking recordings by the Carter Family, Blind Alfred Reed, Jimmy Rodgers and others. Yet Stoneman was way ahead of the game, having traveled to New York City to make records for the Okeh label years earlier, including the 1924 hit “The Titanic.”
Considering that Mr. Monroe did not fully create the bluegrass genre until 1945, when Earl Scruggs joined the band and became that final piece of the puzzle, why is the Stoneman Family being added to the IBMA Hall of Fame? The answer is that the group made up of Pop Stoneman and his kids latched onto bluegrass music almost as soon as it was invented, congealed and perfected.
The 1930s and early 1940s were hard times for Pop Stoneman and his wife Hattie, especially considering that just a little more than a dozen of their 23 children would live long enough to reach adulthood. Then, the combination of the Great Depression and World War II put an end to Stoneman’s recording career and the earnings he received from it.
To survive, the elder Stoneman resorted back to his previous vocation as a carpenter and laborer and did his best to support his large family, even though their home near Galax, VA, was repossessed and all of the furniture but the bed was removed from the premises. The sheriff eventually came for the Stoneman’s car as well, but the family escaped across the county line and ended up in Alexandria, VA, outside of Washington DC. After the war ended, however, Stoneman revived his music career by adding his musically-talented kids to the group.
Now, Pop was joined by his kids Scotty, Donna, Jim, Van, Roni and eventually Patsy. Briefly known as the Blue Grass Champs, the band won the Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts show in 1956. They eventually changed their name to the Stoneman Family and by 1966 they had their own syndicated TV show.
Scotty Stoneman became one of the premier fiddlers in bluegrass music. Current bluegrass legend Peter Rowan remembers visiting The Shamrock Club near Washington DC in the early 1960s when he was the guitarist for Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. There he witnessed Scotty as he put on a magical display of fiddle prowess while performing with other renowned bluegrass artists.
“We decided to go to the Shamrock because we heard that Red Allen was going to play there along with Scotty Stoneman,” said Rowan. “We went to the club and the band featured Red Allen on guitar and vocals, Scott Stoneman on fiddle, Pete Roberts (Kuykendall) on the five-string banjo, one of the Yates Brothers on bass and Frank Wakefield on mandolin… To be one of the people in the audience that night, and it was a moderate crowd, these guys were playing for the fans and it was like, ‘My God!’ We became bowled over by their authenticity. To pick a word, the aura around those guys that night was not of second rate bluegrass music. The weight and the gravitas that they put into their music was not superficial. They were playing bluegrass music to the very deepest aspect of the genre that they could go. It wasn’t overly rehearsed. It was just that everybody knew the material. So, beyond Bill Monroe, my idea of bluegrass music was what these guys were bringing forth. To finally see them while I was working with Bill Monroe just knocked me dead.”
As for sister Roni Stoneman, her instrument of choice was the banjo, famously displaying her five-string talent on the TV show Hee Haw for many years. For Roni, the Earl Scruggs three-finger bluegrass style of playing the instrument was always her path. With her sense of humor and heart always on display, and her white go-go boots on as well, Roni influenced generations of future female bluegrass artists.
Roni and her sister, gospel recording artist Donna Stoneman, are the only ones left standing from those old Stoneman Family days. Roni went from living in a frame of a house with a canvas tarp over it as a roof, no running water and up to five kids in the same bed, to being on a nationally-syndicated TV show.
In an exclusive interview with Bluegrass Unlimited, Roni talks about her long life in the music business and her family’s induction into the IBMA Hall of Fame.
“(IBMA Executive Director) Pat Morris called me and talked to me a while and I had never met him, but he sounded super nice,” said Roni Stoneman. “He came over and we talked a bit and that is when I found out about the Hall of Fame induction. Myself and Donna are going down to Raleigh and we’ll do whatever we need to do. It is very much of an honor and we are proud and thankful. After all, Donna is 87 and I am 83 and Donna has been onstage since she was 8 years old and I was on the stage with Daddy at Constitution Hall when I was 4 and a half, so this is a long time coming. It is not just about me and Donna, as they are honoring the whole Stoneman Family, which I think is marvelous. I have 11 great grandchildren so I think they will like it, too.”
Stoneman is proud of her father’s legacy. Pop Stoneman died in 1968. “Dad first recorded in 1924 and I still have the Edison cylinders here at the house and the cylinder player,” said Stoneman. “Mommy played the fiddle and she played with Daddy during the 1920s. But, they didn’t put her into the Country Music Hall of Fame here in Nashville like they should have, even though she played the fiddle with Daddy in 1927 and she also played the clawhammer banjo. In fact, in 1927, they didn’t mention her name (Hattie Stoneman) on the Bristol Sessions recordings, saying ‘the matron that played the fiddle with Pop Stoneman.’ That is how they treated women then. But, bluegrass music has opened up their hearts to female musicians and we are so proud that they have done that. Bluegrass acknowledges their female musicians, which I think is marvelous.”
As mentioned before, even though her mother Hattie played both the clawhammer and drop thumb style of banjo, Stoneman played Scruggs style five-string from the start.
“When I started playing the three-finger style banjo, my brother Scott was always after me to ‘keep the roll going,’” said Stoneman. “He’d say, ‘Always keep that finger roll going. I don’t want you to get no gallop going. No gallop.’ And, he’d fuss at me if I did. He was really stern about teaching you, while showing you what he thought would be the best. I got a good right hand, but my left hand is not all that good because I was so interested in the roll. The family was so good that I just did a lot of back up, and I did a lot of breakdowns.” There are quite a few vintage videos of the Stoneman Family available for viewing on Youtube.
“Donna and I don’t know how to put anything up on Facebook or Youtube, but other people put the old footage on there and we laugh at ourselves,” said Stoneman. “On the video of the Stoneman’s playing ‘Cripple Creek’ on Youtube, I pull a Bill Monroe thing, because some of the boys said, ‘We can’t smile, or Bill Monroe will fire us.’ So I said, ‘Ok. I’m going to play “Cripple Creek” with no smile.’ If you’ll notice, I just stare straight ahead. Everybody says that is the funniest thing because I’m known for the silly stuff.”
Stoneman still has her Gibson Mastertone banjo that she bought in the mid-1950s. Unfortunately, the instruments that her father made for the family were traded in for a down payment for the new ones back. Donna and Roni Stoneman have a new album out now called The Legend Continues on the Patuxent Music record label.
Lynn Morris also broke ground for female bluegrass players on the banjo over four decades ago. As a young woman, the West Texas native was quickly becoming an accomplished guitar player while studying Art at Colorado College in Colorado Springs when she came across someone in a bluegrass band playing the three-finger Scruggs-style of banjo. Smitten with the instrument, Morris mastered the Scruggs technique on the five-string by the mid-1970s, she stepped up win the famous National Banjo Championship in Winfield, Kansas, two times in a row.
Now firmly established as a true bluegrass talent, Morris played in the bands such as City Limits with Mary Stribling and Pat Rossiter and the Pennsylvania-based Whetstone Run before creating her own wonderful group in the 1980s. One Lynn Morris Band cut called “Mama’s Hand,” written by Hazel Dickens, won the IBMA Song of the year award in 1996. Morris would go on to win the IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year honor in 1996, 1998 and 1999.
Morris’ amazing run as a bluegrass musician stopped in 2003, however, when she suffered a stroke. With her mind still sharp, her heart still full and her love of bluegrass music undying, Morris, with the help of her long-time husband and bass playing great Marshall Wilborn, still granted Bluegrass Unlimited an interview in celebration of her IBMA Hall of Fame induction.
“I love this honor. It’s so great,” said Morris. “Pat Morris called me up and said, ‘You got it.’ I said, ‘What?’ He later came to have breakfast with us. This honor is great for me and I love it so much, and my friends have been so supportive.”
Early in her musical training, Morris became adept at playing the guitar, but bluegrass music was not yet on her horizon. Then, a chance encounter with a bluegrass band on the edge of the Rocky Mountains introduced her to the world of the banjo. She was instantly enamored.
“My mother and father sent me to school in Colorado Springs and I went there for two years,” said Morris. “I had a great teacher for the guitar there and his name was John Smith (who taught Morris jazz guitar and finger-style classical guitar). Learning the banjo was easy because learning those styles of guitar (beforehand) was great for me. I love the guitar, but I love the banjo as well, and I loved Earl Scruggs as he was so good. I also love Don Reno’s playing very much as well. And, I love my fans very much. I love them all.”
Wilborn, a four-time winner of the IBMA “Bass Player of the Year” award and current bassist for Chris Jones and the Night Drivers, remembers when he first laid eyes on Morris.
“I went to Winfield, Kansas, with some friends in 1976, and I was still living in Texas at the time, and we went to Winfield so this buddy of mine could play in the banjo contest,” said Wilborn. “While we were there, we saw Lynn playing with City Limits. That was where I first saw her, although we did not meet then. And, I’m pretty sure that was the first time I ever seen a women playing a banjo. It was practically unheard of in the mid-1970s. I guess Lynn and Roni Stoneman and Murphy Henry and Susie Monick were some of the only women banjo players back then.”
Wilborn credits Morris with his success in bluegrass music. “Years ago, when I played music for recreation and weekend fun back in Texas, I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would get to do all of the things that Lynn and I have done all of these years,” said Wilborn. “Really, it all happened by way of Lynn. When we met back in Texas, she was the one that encouraged me to give it a try and play the bass in a working, touring band. She recommended me to play bass in Whetstone Run, and if it wasn’t for her initiating all of this stuff, I never would have done any of this. I’m sure of it. When we started the Lynn Morris Band in 1988, we recorded five albums and played on the Grand Ole Opry a few times, which was thrilling, and we played in Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Sweden and Denmark. I can’t imagine how we would have gone to all of those places and met the people that we’ve met in general over the years except for music.”
Alison Krauss is our last featured artist to be inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame and one of the youngest to get the nod. Some wondered if it was too soon to induct Krauss, yet much like Vince Gill’s induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007; why put off the inevitable.
What Krauss has done for bluegrass music is astounding, with her accomplishments speaking for themselves. She has won 14 IBMA Awards including four IBMA “Female Vocalist of the Year” nods, two IBMA “Entertainer of the Year” wins and five IBMA “Album of the Year” honors.
When it comes to the Grammy Awards, given out by the Recording Academy, Krauss has won an astounding 27 Grammys and has garnered 42 Grammy Award nominations. From her early solo albums to her amazing work with Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas, Krauss set a very high standard when it comes to bluegrass music and the genre being recognized around the globe.
Krauss came out of Illinois as a teenager who began to win prestigious fiddle contests. When she began to record her own albums, her career took off quickly with hits like Louisa Branscomb’s “Steel Wheels” and albums such as 1990’s I’ve Got That Old Feeling, which garnered Krauss her first Grammy win.
There is a famous interview with Krauss, conducted decades ago by Ronnie Reno, where Krauss laments at a young age about her newfound fame preventing her from doing something as simple as walking around a music festival and jamming with others around a campfire. Years later, Krauss would find herself wearing $2 million dollar shoes while attending the Academy Awards.
Yet after all of her acclaim and success, Krauss granted me an interview in 2019. What did she enthusiastically want to talk about? Krauss wanted to honor bluegrass legend Dave Evans after his passing a couple of years ago. She also gleefully talked of how important it was to see Evans perform when she was young, and how much Larry Sparks and Doc Watson also meant to her evolution as a musician as well. Her bluegrass roots run deep and wide.
Yes, Krauss is about to launch into the music business stratosphere once again with her new Rounder Records album with Robert Plant called Raise The Roof. Yet, that reminds us of the duo’s first collaborative album Raising Sand, the promos of which featured Krauss talking with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Led Zeppelin vocalist in the late JT Gray’s Station Inn club in Nashville and touting the work of the great bluegrass fiddler Stuart Duncan in the process. Krauss not only schooled Plant on the cooler aspects of bluegrass music, she brought the rest of the world into that conversation as well.