Roni Stoneman, with Ellen Wright,
Pressing On
(University of Illinois Press, 2007)

Roni Stoneman is a member of the remarkable family that emerged out of grinding poverty in the Appalachian region to become perhaps the most recorded group in the history of traditional music. Roni was not the beautiful one -- that was Donna, who played the mandolin. Roni was the banjo player, skinny and gap-toothed and so full of personality that she often shocked her audiences -- or her many boyfriends -- with her frank, earthy outbursts.

Ellen Wright, whose literary fare is generally wrapped in more sophisticated trappings (such as Bridgehampton Weekends: Easy Menus for Casual Entertaining), plunged into the collaboration with Roni when she saw that Roni was an outspoken humorous golden-ager with dyed blond hair and the energy of a whirlwind. Despite their cultural differences, it was a solid match. Roni spent hours telling all, and then some, to Ellen's tape recorder. Ellen cut the resulting verbiage down to size for Pressing On -- without sacrificing its toothsome Southern flavor.

Roni said her family suffered from "poorism" -- not just a temporary phase of being down on one's luck, but a multigenerational condition that was finally overcome. Her father, Ernest "Pop" Stoneman, wanted a musical instrument so bad he constructed his own autoharp. One of his first recordings, "The Sinking of the Titanic" (1924), was an instant hit. He was so resourceful, Roni recounts, that at one gig, finding that there was no stage for his family band, he simply built one a few hours before the show. Roni inherited his ingenuity. Once while her band was on the road staying in cheap motels, she used a light bulb and a little tap water to press her performing clothes.

Struggling through the Great Depression, Pop and his brood gradually moved up from the one-room house shared by 10 people to the high falutin' rip-roarin' lifestyle of Nashville in its heyday.

On her own after the family band split off in various directions, Roni proved not only her banjo virtuosity (she's widely considered the best female banjo picker of all time), but also her comic genius as a regular on the immensely popular TV show, Hee-Haw, where she played "the ironing board lady, Ida Lee" with hair in curlers and a slow, acerbic delivery. The "ironing board lady" was not unlike Roni herself: practical, focused, family-oriented and blessed with a sharp wit.

In between the stresses of performing and the ups and downs of life in the Nashville fast lane, Roni had five husbands -- one of whom habitually beat her and was kicked out of the Winston-Salem school system after he got drunk while at his job as a teacher, forcing Roni to flee with the kids. Roni has always made a place for her children in her life. Her daughter, Barbara, has special needs, so Roni also became involved in promoting services for the developmentally disabled.

Seventy-something Roni still does stage appearances -- she's been at the Galax Fiddlers Convention the past couple of years, and she always gives her all to even the briefest performance. She tells a few stories from the days of outhouses and Hee-Haw out-takes, then moves her fingers lightning fast over the banjo strings. The audience roars. She's the real thing, and they love her.

review by
Barbara Bamberger Scott

21 July 2007

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