Stoneman sisters score another win . . .
NASHVILLE — Roni and Donna, stompin’ Stoneman survivors, succeeded in electrifying showgoers at the Nashville Palace, Aug. 21. The last of Country Music Hall of Famer Pop Stoneman’s 23 children, Roni and Donna resorted to footwork of sorts to enliven their performances: Roni stompin’ harder in prompting the band to up the tempo to match her lightnin’-like banjo pickin’, and Donna dazzling them with rhythmic dancing in accompaniment to her mandolin.
Although recent rumors had Donna, 82, in declining health, she dispelled such whimsy with fanciful footsteppin’ fans came to expect since The Stonemans won CMA’s first best group award (1967). Veronica, better known as Roni, demonstrated why she’s hailed as Queen of the Banjo, and between numbers bantered amusingly, as she did for decades on the popular Hee Haw TV series. Acting as emcee was Gene Kennedy, without his ’59 “doo wop” The Dons (“I’ll Still Be Loving You”).
Vocally, the sisters scored equally high marks, be it on the Davis Sisters #1 weeper “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” or Johnny Russell’s snapshot-in-time hit “Catfish John,” their sibling harmony melding together tightly (years of working with Pop, no doubt came into play). Superbly backed by veteran players Willie Rainsford, keyboards; Ron Elliott, steel guitar; Larry Barnes, bass; Charlie Vaughan, electric guitar; and drummer Eric Kaberle, who each got a solo spot, as the sisters stepped back, strumming along.
“Yeah, we’re all just old-timers,” joshed Roni, 78, “Hey, but I come back later with my Rap band!”
Following Steel Guitar Hall of Famer Elliott’s instrumental break, Roni quipped, “I just let him play in the band, ’cause he still owes me child support . . . Yeah, thanks Ron, for my one ugly child!”
Nobody in the audience laughed any louder than Leslie Elliott, Ron’s one and only spouse. She’s also executive director of co-sponsor ROPE (Reunion Of Professional Entertainers), a non-profit supporting musicians, and beneficiary of this “Sunday Social” gig. In the crowd, too, were singers Karen Jeglum (“A Thing Or Two On My Mind”) and Tommy Cash (“Six White Horses,” “Rise And Shine”), yet another staunch Stoneman fan.
Roni ad-libbed, “Tommy asked how I was doin’, and I said, ‘Other than diabetes of the blow-ho, I’m doin’ fine.’ Not really understanding, he replied, ‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ so I explained it’s an old saying Mommie always used, like when callin’ her boys in outta the snow, she’d yell, ‘Y’all better get in here or you’ll get diabetes of the blow’ho!’ . . . and they’d come a’runnin’.’ It don’t mean nothin’.”
Apparently a pair of instrumentals meant a lot to the Palace patrons, judging by the thunderous applause ensuing: Donna’s “Under the Double Eagle” mandolin solo (complete with tapping toes), and the “Deliverance” film theme known as “Dueling Banjos,” this time substituting a banjo with a mandolin.
When it comes to entertaining, it’s hard to beat the pros, especially Roni and Donna, who represent an Appalachian family music legacy spanning more than a century. Their dad Ernest Van Stoneman (1893-1968) was 10, when he started learning how to play Grandma’s autoharp, first tapping into the family roots to promote a musical dynasty that included his fiddle-playing wife Hattie (Frost). In September 1924, on a Victrola cylinder, he became the first to record with an autoharp, and among the earliest to cut a country hit, “(Sinking Of) The Titanic,” a million-selling song released in 1925 (competing with Vernon Dalhart’s multi-million-seller “The Prisoner’s Song,” recorded in August 1924).
Years later, Ernest toured with his youngsters as Pop Stoneman & His Little Pebbles during World War II and beyond. In the 1960s, Pop enjoyed a national comeback, recording this time in stereo for MGM, charting such singles as “Tupelo County Jail” and “The Five Little Johnson Girls,” co-hosting the syndicated Stoneman Family TV series, then winning the CMA trophy the year before his passing.
According to Roni, at the Palace, “I was in the fourth grade, before I knew the whole world didn’t pick and sing.” Fortunately for us, she and Donna sure did. – WT