By Wayne Erbsen
We couldn’t quite figure out who he was. As the lights were dimmed and the audience hushed, my sister Bonnie and I sat in suspense at the West Hollywood club known as The Ash Grove. All at once, the band started to play and even as our attention became riveted on the spectacle unfolding before us, we wondered about the little old man sitting on stage in a hard-backed chair with an autoharp flat on his lap and a little black hat stuck on his head.
We got a hint when members of the Stoneman Family eventually introduced him as the patriarch of the clan, Pop Stoneman. When his time came to sing, the old gentleman forcefully launched into the old-time song The Titanic. While we thought his performance quaint, we were frankly more awed by the bigger spectacle of the younger Stonemans’ show. There was Roni, whose hard-edged banjo playing was tempered by her goofy stage persona; pretty Donna, who danced while her fingers fairly flew over the mandolin; big Van on guitar; and Jimmy on bass fiddle.
But what really caught my attention was the fiddler, Scotty. He played with the wild abandon that made me think he was being chased by the headless horseman of Ichabod Crane fame. As he played, it was almost like he was possessed by the devil. Only later did I find out that wasn’t far from the truth.
Looking back on that memorable evening in 1964, I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t pay more attention to Pop Stoneman. Now that I’ve researched his career, there are so many questions I’d like to ask him. Luckily, folklorist Archie Green had the wherewithal to interview him back in 1962, and for that, I’m grateful.
Although known in later years as “Pop,” his given name was Ernest V. Stoneman. He grew up in the tradition-rich region of southwest Virginia, in Carroll County. His great-great grandfather had been shanghaied from England when he was only 12 years old and left in North Carolina to fend for himself.
As young Ernest was growing up near Iron Ridge, Virginia, he was surrounded by the music of family and neighbors. In early 1924, the 31-year-old Stoneman was in the Warwick Furniture Store in Bluefield, West Virginia, when he heard a phonograph record that caught his attention. He recognized the voice as that of Henry Whitter singing The Wreck of the Old 97. Stoneman knew Whitter from way back, when they both worked at a cotton mill in Fries, Virginia.
Knowing he could outdo Whitter in singing and playing, Stoneman made up his mind to make his own phonograph records. Without delay, he wrote both Columbia and Okeh. He soon received positive replies, with Columbia setting a September 2nd audition and Okeh inviting him to “come up any time.” That was the beginning of a career that would span over four decades. In that time, he recorded hundreds of records on every possible medium: cylinders, 78s, and LPs, and performed on radio and TV. Through his performances and recordings he managed to help perpetuate old-time music for future generations.
Ironically, his biggest contribution may have been quite by accident. During Stoneman’s Victor recording session in late July of 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee, Ralph Peer let it slip to a newspaper reporter that Stoneman’s royalties amounted to $3,600 in the previous year alone. Once that story hit the paper, droves of old-time musicians came out of the hills to audition for Victor. Included in that number was a group calling themselves the Carter Family. The rest, as they say, is history.
Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really, about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written more than 30 songbooks and instruction books for banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin. Portions of this article are excerpted from Wayne’s book, The Rural Roots of Bluegrass.