“However mean your life is, meet it and live it: do not shun it and call it hard names. Cultivate poverty
like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends.
Things do not change, we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.” – Henry David Thoreau
Many of the precious few remaining survivors of the Great Depression in America remember it as a time
of aching need. Because nearly all of the living witnesses to this extraordinarily traumatic era were
children during the 1930s, many were at least partially shielded from their dismal poverty.
Before the Depression began in 1929, a Virginian named Earnest “Pop” Stoneman recorded more than
200 songs for a variety of infant record labels, including Thomas Edison’s Victor. His 1924 hit, “The
Sinking of the Titanic,” sold more than 1 million copies. Then, in 1927, Pop persuaded a talent scout
named Ralph Peer to come to Bristol, Tennessee and audition the local talent. These sessions resulted in
the discovery of country music legends Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.
Looking for work, Pop and his wife, Hattie, moved their still-growing family from the Virginia hills to
Washington, D.C., in 1930. Numerous children later, on May 5, 1938, Pop and Hattie welcomed a new
daughter into their already sizable fold. Because they were unable to agree on a name at first, the baby
girl’s birth certificate read: “Stoneman – 17th child – female.” Nearly a week had passed before a visiting
aunt and uncle named her Veronica “Roni” Loretta Stoneman.
A true American renaissance man, Pop was an expert carpenter, miner and musician. Without a doubt,
Hattie was every bit his determined and creative equal. The resourceful couple raised the 15 of their 23
children who lived to reach maturity in a world of hardship, homemade music and enduring love.
During 1947, broadcasting legend Connie B. Gay organized a talent contest on his radio show that offered
a six-month run on television as first prize. Despite Pop and Hattie’s earlier success in the music
business, life was a continuous struggle. For many years, the entire family lived in a one-room shack
with barely a roof covering it. One day Pop heard about the competition on the radio and soon
approached his older sons to help him take the prize.
Roni will never forget how crushed her Daddy was that they turned him down, calling his
music “outdated.” They told him they were already planning to play with some friends and win that
contest themselves. An insightful Hattie understood what was happening and told her disconsolate
husband, “Get my fiddle tuned up and start making instruments for the little ones. We’ll just enter that
contest and take the prize from them.”
“Over 100 acts descended on Constitution Hall that night,” recalled Roni, a young child at the time. The
boys performed very well and received a fine applause. Sure their group had already won the contest;
they confidently watched the several acts before the rest of their family was to perform.
Long before the Stoneman Family finished its remarkable rendition of “Somebody’s Waiting for Me,” the
crowd was in a frenzy and by the end of her amazing fiddle solo, Hattie’s prophecy came true when the
family was awarded first place.
Hattie placed an exclamation point on her dejected older sons’ public education when she invited them to
join the victorious family members for their encore performance. After all, she was still their mom.
The Stoneman Family recorded albums in 1962, 63 and 1964. Then in 1965, the group came to
Nashville, landed a contract with MGM Records and started a syndicated TV show.
The Stonemans’ also won the Country Music Association’s “Vocal Group of the Year” award in 1967.
Roni Stoneman later joined the cast of Hee Haw in 1973 and is probably the most recognized of her
family as a result of her memorable “Ironing Board Lady” character. Roni eventually was allowed
to share her gift as a banjo player on the long-running show while demonstrating her natural talent as
a comedian. Unmatched as a musician, she is the beneficiary of many years of hard work and most
important, her Mama’s incredible genes.
“If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become
more, then, you are an excellent leader.” – Dolly Parton