Author Topic: Roni Stoneman can’t be sensuous with you if you’re too stupid  (Read 3166 times)

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Offline CatManDo

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Roni Stoneman can’t be sensuous with you if you’re too stupid
« Reply #1 on: August 09, 2009, 06:45:10 AM »
Pure Country
Roni Stoneman can’t be sensuous with you if you’re too stupid

By Chris Ziegler

Roni Stoneman has a head cold and she loves what it could do for her: “I should go record an album like this,” she says, slipping down an octave. “Tell me, punkin’ – do I sound like ... Lauren Bacall?” Last time she got all husky, she says, she called up an old mountain man she’d known and tried to give him a little thrill: “What are you wearing?” “Well,” he said, “I got some old brown shoes and some white socks ... why?” “Oh, I can’t be sensuous with you,” she grumps. “You’re too stupid!”

This is the pone straight from the corn and the blue right off the grass from the lady sometimes remembered as Hee Haw’s Ida Lee Nagger (fans still come up and say – with affection – “Lemme see if you as ugly as I think you are!”) but always remembered as the first lady of the banjo. On page 97 of the beautiful new book Pure Country, you can see her defending her position the way first ladies do – trial by combat, which she won. And on page 8 you can read about amateur photographer and audio engineer Leon Kagarise, whose nearly lost archive of early-1960s color slides of country musicians shot live at an outdoor stage in Maryland make up the backbone of the book. He used to cry when he saw Roni and the rest of her tirelessly legendary Stoneman Family play.

“It was the real high-energy, fast bluegrass songs,” he’d say. “Those are the kind that grabbed me and just tore me up and wrung me out like a rag. To be there, with the sounds and the smells and all the people loving the music so much, and I’m standing six feet from the stage and the band is playing and the music is so fantastic. It all got very emotional for me. It was a happy cry, not a sad cry, but I was just overwhelmed by it all.”

“I know it, honey,” says Roni, remembering young Leon taking his pictures and making live recordings at the side of a tiny plywood stage. She finally takes her first pause in an interview otherwise bounding from punchline to punchline. (Like the gynecologist cousin who wanted to be a brain surgeon ... but he was too short!) “Everywhere we’d turn around, there would be Leon with a camera and his little recorder. He was wonderful. The world needs more Leons!”

The world could maybe use more Stonemans, too, though at one time it had so many that five simultaneous bands were operating under Pop Stoneman’s supervision. He was born in 1893 and recorded for Thomas Edison – Roni still has a cylinder and cylinder player for “daddy’s records,” she says – and wrote “The Sinking of the Titanic,” a country song that made a million dollars in 1924. (You’ll hear other early Stoneman songs on the Anthology of American Folk Music.) After the Depression dissolved all that, the family moved into a one-room house in Carmody Hills, Maryland, not so far from the New River Ranch where Kagarise would shoot his photos a generation later.

Roni was the No. 17 of 23 children (and five sets of twins) and the bed-wetters had to sleep at the distant end of the straw mattress. As a little girl, she remembers when the nearby District of Columbia sent out school officials who informed Pop Stoneman that although his children weren’t very “scholistic,” they were bringing in homemade instruments and holding impromptu concerts of their own original songs for classmates. “Yeah,” sighed Pop. “They have a tendency to do that.”

They were entertainers, Roni says, delivering the word with italics and underlines. Pop learned his songs the medieval way – from his pop, who learned them from his, and so back over centuries and oceans to famines and feasts in the British Isles. The Stonemans played like they were at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show: they’d sing and dance (adorable mandolin player Donna with flashing gold boots and a string of firecracker kicks) and crack jokes and dodge bullets (if the occasion demanded) and they’d play even when the man with their money skipped out during the first song. Then they’d ask for the fans to buy them sandwiches. Like Daddy said, says Roni: “They’ll always send you up a drink, but they won’t buy you a sandwich when you’re down!”

On vintage video now, the Stonemans are smiles and polka-dots and fingers too fast to follow; a 1965 take on “Lost Ball In The High Weeds” (high hair, too) splits into a neck-snapping hillbilly Busby Berkeley routine on Roni’s breakdown and slides back together before the sisters can catch their breath. Roni then was ferocious, bouncing behind her banjo like she’s barely able to hold it down. And that’s how Kagarise caught her in Pure Country, too – page 6, front and center, smile so wide it might pop. She sounds no different now; in new photos, you’ll recognize the same smile. She never learned, she says: “An old manager said, ‘Don’t be too friendly! You take the mystique away! You go out there like you’re at a family reunion!’” she says.

“Well – I am!”