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Roni Stoneman: Nashville's First Lady of Banjo



Full of vim and vigor, Roni Stoneman recalls her amazing life as a member of a well-known family band, a cast member on a popular television show, and how she fits into today's music scene. 

 

Veronica Loretta "Roni" Stoneman overcame numerous obstacles to carve out a career for herself in the country music world in Nashville. Roni is the youngest girl in Ernest and Hattie Stoneman's extended family band. Her childhood was difficult, but music was the thing that brought her joy and got her through the hard times. 

"I heard music while I was still in my mama's belly," she exclaims. "I started playing music with my daddy when I was eight years old. My sister Donna was five or six when she started playing with him. She is the real musical talent in our family. Dona has played for 84 years, and I have played for 81."  

Roni says they grew up playing music for entertainment. "It wasn't a self-centered 'look-at-me' kind of thing. Music was something that was always a part of our lives." Roni says she learned to play from lessons with her brother, Scott. "He was very talented." 


The family lived in the D.C. area and visited their grandfather in Galax, Virginia. "He never left the state of Virginia. Folks just played music in each other's cabins. They would roll back the rugs and dance. Most of those folks made their instruments with three or four strings, then five strings. Sometimes there would be a washboard or jug, which have a nice deep sound when played right." 

 

Roni gravitated to the banjo. "I liked it because it was loud and fun, and everyone wanted to dance when they heard one being played. I have always loved for people to have a good time." Roni said her daddy made her first banjo. "Then he made my second, third, and fourth. They had real skin heads stretched across the front of the banjo. After he made my fourth one, he said I'd have to get the next one on my own." Scott taught her to play the two to three-finger banjo, Scruggs-style. "Most women who played wanted to play clawhammer style. I wanted to pick."


Scott told her she needed to play several instruments to get more jobs. "Neither of us could read music, but we taught each other." But banjo was Roni's real love, and she was desperate to get one that wasn't homemade. "I entered a contest in Pennsylvania where the top prize was a new banjo, which I really wanted." The contest was at New River Ranch. While waiting for her turn to perform, Roni met another contestant who was a student at Juilliard. Undeterred, she went on stage and won the contest. 

 

One day, Roni's dad came home from work and told her mother about a contest at Constitution Hall. The winner got to be on television, which was new then. They went and won, and their photo was taken by Life magazine. That began the family's musical career. The family was on television every week for 26 weeks but never got paid. "We had never even seen a television, so my daddy took us to the hardware store so we could see one." 


Married at 16, Roni had her first child at 17. By the time she was in her mid-twenties, Roni was a single mother to five children. "I was raising them by myself. But I was able to make money by playing banjo – I was known as a really fast banjo player. I also took in wash to help make ends meet." 

 

She got into the folk music craze during the 1950s and 60s and traveled around California playing in "skull orchards," her brothers' name for honkytonks. 

 

Her mastery of deadpan and comedic timing got the attention of Hee Haw producers. She joined the cast in 1973 and performed in skits on the show as the character "Ida Lee Nagger," a bedraggled housewife at an ironing board, constantly talking about her no-good husband "LaVerne." She based her character on neighbors she heard arguing during childhood and the Ma and Pa Kettle movies of the 1940s and 50s. She also played the banjo and sang on the show. 

She recorded a few singles and a couple of banjo albums in the 1980s, both released on the family's Stonehouse label. 

 

After leaving Hee Haw in 1991, she experimented with an all-girl band, the Daisey Maes. She opened a theatre in Florida but eventually got enough bookings to support herself. 

Her autobiography, Pressing On, was written with author Ellen Wright and published in 2007. Roni still lives in Nashville, where for many years she was known as "The First Lady of Banjo." Now well into her 80s, Roni says she plays gigs around town from time to time. "I want to play as long as I possibly can." 


 

  

Family Photo: Circa 1889. Fiddle: Tom Leonard, Roni's mom's first cousin. Big autoharp is Aunt Phinney, her mother's aunt. The lady in the middle with the guitar is Mirtle Stoneman, a relative of Roni's dad, Ernest Stoneman. On the small autoharp is Bertha Hawks, cousin to Ernest Stoneman. On banjo is Roni's grandfather, Bill Frost, her mom's dad. This photo was taken in front of the cabin that Bill Frost built down in Virginia in the Blue Ridge Mountains. "My family talent goes way back," she wrote.

 

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