Ernest and Hattie Stoneman
Ernest and Hattie Stoneman
They marked the commercial debuts of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. Country music had been recorded commercially since 1922. Among these very early artists were Vernon Dalhart, who recorded the million-selling Wreck of the Old 97, Ernest Stoneman from Galax, Virginia, Henry Whitter, A.C. (Eck) Robertson, who recorded the first documented country record along with Henry C. Gilliland ("Sallie Gooden" b/w "Arkansaw Traveler"), and Uncle Dave Macon.
However, any "hillbilly" artists who recorded had to travel to the New York City studios of the major labels, and many artists, including Dalhart, were not true "hillbilly" artists but instead crossed over from other genres. ("Hillbilly" is used here to distinguish the largely secular folk music of the region from gospel and blues, and is not meant as a pejorative.) Okeh Records and later Columbia Records had sent producers around the South in an attempt to discover new talent. Peer, who worked for Okeh at the time, recorded Fiddlin' John Carson using the old acoustic method (known for its large intrusive sound-gathering horn) in 1924, at the behest of the Okeh dealer in Atlanta, Georgia, Polk Brockman. Despite Peer's belief that the record was of poor quality, the 500 copies made of "Cluck Old Hen" sold out in weeks.
This experience convinced Peer of the potential for "hillbilly" music. Peer left Okeh for the Victor Talking Machine Company, taking a salary of $1 per year. However, Peer owned the publishing rights to all the recordings he made. Peer's arrangement of paying royalties to artists based on sales is the basis for record contracts today, and the company he founded, Peermusic, remains in existence today. The rise of electronic recording allowed records to have a sound better than radio, which had threatened to reduce the recording industry to irrelevance by 1925. This new method allowed softer instruments such as dulcimers, guitars and jaw harps to be heard, and it also meant recording equipment was highly portable — and as such, recordings could be made nearly anywhere (the acoustic equipment was not really portable.) Peer asked his friend Stoneman, who had recorded for Okeh, how to find more rural talent.
Stoneman convinced Peer to travel through southern Appalachia and record artists who might otherwise have been unable to travel to New York. Peer recognized the potential with the mountain music, as even residents of Appalachia who didn't have electricity were using hand-cranked Victrolas. He decided to make a trip, hoping to record blues, gospel and "hillbilly" music. Artists were paid $50 on the spot for each side cut, and 2½ cents for each single sold. In February and March, he made a trip which recorded blues and gospel music, and decided to make another trip.
He decided to make a stop in Savannah, Georgia and Charlotte, North Carolina. He settled on Bristol (at the urging of Stoneman) as a third stop, because with Johnson City and Kingsport, Tennessee, it formed the Tri-Cities, the largest urban area in the Appalachians at the time. In addition, three other record companies had held or were scheduling auditions for Bristol. So Peer set out with his wife and two engineers for Bristol. Peer then set up a record studio in a hat warehouse on State Street, which is the state line in Bristol.
He placed advertisements in the local newspapers, which did not receive much response aside from artists who had already traveled to New York (such as the Powers Family) or were already known by Stoneman. Stoneman was the first to record with Peer, doing so on July 25. He recorded with friends such as his wife Hattie, Eck Dunford and Mooney Brewer. Other acts, including the Johnson Brothers vaudeville duo (best known for their Crime of The D'Autremont Brothers) and a church choir, filled out the rest of July. However, these artists were only enough to fill the first week of recordings and Peer needed to fill out his second week. A newspaper article about one of Stoneman's recordings (Skip To Ma Lou, My Darling), which stressed the $3,600 in royalties that Stoneman had received in 1926 and the $100 a day he was receiving for recording in Bristol, generated much more interest.
Dozens of artists went to Bristol, many of whom had never been to Bristol in their lives. He had to schedule night sessions to accommodate the extra talent, which included the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers. Rodgers had a disagreement with his band over what name to record under, and so Rodgers recorded solo and his band recorded as the Tenneva Ramblers. Rodgers and his band only found out about the sessions when they stayed at the boarding house of one of the band members' mothers. Eventually, nineteen performers recorded seventy-six songs at the Sessions. A second group of sessions was made by Peer in 1928, but the artistic success was not duplicated.
In those twelve days in Bristol, Peer had managed to fully introduce America to the authentic music of southern Appalachia. The results were two new superstars, the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers, and Peer's becoming very wealthy. Stoneman was born in a log cabin in Monarat (Iron Ridge), Carroll County, Virginia, near what would later become Galax, Stoneman was left motherless at age three and was raised by his father and three musically inclined cousins, who taught him the instrumental and vocal traditions of Blue Ridge mountain culture. When he married Hattie Frost in November 1918, he entered another musically involved family. He and Hattie had 23 children, 13 of whom survived to adulthood: Eddie L.
(deceased), I. Grace (deceased), John C.(deceased), Patsy I., J. William (Billy) (deceased), Gene A. (deceased), Dean C.
(deceased), C. Scott (deceased), Donna L., O. James (deceased), Veronica L. (Roni), Van H.
(deceased). Stoneman worked at a variety of jobs, in mines, mills, but mostly carpentry, and played music for his own enjoyment and that of his neighbors, but when he heard a Henry Whitter record in 1924, he determined to better it and changed his life as well. Stoneman went to New York in September 1924 and cut two songs for the Okeh Records label. The record was shelved and he had to return for another recording session in January 1925. Ralph Peer directed him through several sessions for Okeh and Victor, and he freelanced on other labels such as Edison, Gennett and Paramount Records.
In 1926, he added family musicians to his group for a full string band sound. In July and August 1927, Stoneman helped Peer conduct the legendary Bristol sessions that led to the discovery of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. He continued to be active in recording through 1929. Between 1925 and 1929 Stoneman recorded more than 200 songs. Falling on hard times during the Depression, the Stonemans and their nine surviving children moved to the Washington, D.C. area in 1932 after losing their home and most of their possessions.
There they had four more children and struggled through dire poverty, with Stoneman taking whatever work he could find and trying to revive his musical career. In 1941, Stoneman bought a lot in Carmody Hills, Maryland, where he built a shack for the family and eventually obtained a more or less regular job at the Naval Gun Factory. In 1947, the Stoneman Family won a talent contest at Constitution Hall that gave them six months' exposure on local television. In 1956, Pop won $10,000 on the NBC-TV quiz show The Big Surprise and sang on the show as well. That same year, the Blue Grass Champs, a group composed largely of his children, were winners on the CBS-TV program Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, and Mike Seeger recorded Pop and Hattie for Folkways. Stoneman retired from labor and the Champs went full-time to become the Stonemans.
They did albums for Starday in 1962 and 1963 and in 1964, went to Texas and California, cutting an album for World Pacific, playing at Disneyland, on some network shows and at several folk festivals. In 1965, they went to Nashville, where they signed a contract with MGM Records and started a syndicated TV show. They received CMA's "Vocal Group of the Year" in 1967. Pop Stoneman died in 1968 at age 75. He is interred in the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Nashville. On February 12, 2008, Ernest "Pop" Stoneman was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and in 2009 he and his wife Hattie Frost Stoneman were enshrined in the Gennett Records Walk of Fame. The first major retrospective of his musical career "Ernest Stoneman: The Unsung Father of Country Music 1925-1934" (5 String Productions) was issued in 2008 by the Grammy award winning reissue team of Christopher C. King and Henry Sapoznik and was nominated for a 2009 Grammy award for "Best Album Notes." Read more on Last.fm.
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