When It Was Always Summer, and She Was Always Mine: How the Statler Brothers Opened Up Country Music
"We didn't bring country music to the city-we brought it to town," said Harold Reid, the bass voice and chief comic presence of the Statler Brothers. He's right, of course. But there's substantially more to the Statlers' musical contributions than that. They were the first country act that routinely spurned country's most dearly held conventions to present their own worldview. It wasn't just that they sang about idyllic small towns instead of hardscrabble farms. Their songs also exhibited a different, more urbane array of attitudes and values.
|The Statler Brothers, 1971|
"We were very early country music fans, and had been all our lives," Reid continued in a phone interview from the group's offices in Staunton, Virginia. "But we had a real thing about everybody who came on the country music scene [being] poor, liv[ing] on a farm, pick[ing] cotton. His mother and father were hobos-both of them. They would pass around a little piece of meat for supper [since] that's all they had for two weeks. Sometimes it just really got the best of you. So we got to telling people in country music-which didn't make us real popular-that our parents actually took better care of us than their parents did."
Comic exaggeration aside, Reid puts his finger on a reigning country stereotype: the poor but proud undereducated rube who revels in his own inadaptability. For most of its existence, the "country" part of country music meant rural. And rural meant geographical isolation, family-centeredness, hard work, a slow-paced existence, and a visceral sense of place.
Country meant living in ways dictated more by nature-daylight and dark, changes in weather, seasons of growth and harvest-than by the clock. Lacking the control over events that education, wealth, social exposure, and the right connections conferred, country folk tended to be wary of "outsiders," self-conscious about their own worth, defensive, and fatalistic. They were victims before victimhood was cool. At least that's how the music portrayed them. To a degree, it still does.
But there was none of this righteous insularity for the Statlers. Having grown up together in small-town Staunton during the 1950s, when the national economy was booming and television was becoming the great cultural homogenizer, they were confident enough to sing about the things that really shaped and excited them. And it sure wasn't Mama's home cooking or Daddy's character-building aphorisms.
The first incarnation of what would become the Statler Brothers emerged in 1955 as the Four Star Quartet. Its members were Harold Reid, Lew DeWitt, Phil Balsley, and Joe McDorman. Although the group featured pop and country songs in their repertoire, their vocal models were southern gospel quartets, particularly the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen. When McDorman left the group in 1961, Harold's younger brother, Don, took his place. By this time, they were performing as the Kingsmen.
In 1963, the quartet cajoled Johnny Cash into allowing them to open a show for him in Berryville, Virginia. Cash was sufficiently impressed by the youngsters' showmanship to invite them to tag along to other of his concerts. Finally, in early 1964, he welcomed them officially into his troupe. They would stay with him for the next eight and a half years, a tenure they memorialized in the song "We Got Paid by Cash."
Another act calling itself the Kingsmen surfaced in late 1963 with the pop hit "Louie Louie." This necessitated a second name change for the boys from Staunton. According to their oft-told story, they were in a hotel room puzzling over what their next name should be when their gaze alighted on a box of Statler-brand tissues. They agreed that one would do nicely.
|The Statler Brothers: Harold Reid, Don Reid, Phil Balsley, and Lew DeWitt, 1965|
Cash lost no time in using his leverage at Columbia Records, his home label, to get the Statlers a recording deal. Their first two singles failed to chart, but the third more than compensated for the earlier disappointments. "Flowers on the Wall," penned by tenor Lew DeWitt, is the ironic and cinematically bleak rumination of a man who has apparently been dumped by his girlfriend. Stark though its vision is, the Statlers delivered "Flowers" with such buoyant vocals and sprightly rhythms that it became a major crossover hit in 1965, reaching #2 on Billboard's country charts and #4 on the pop rankings.
Remarkably, the Statlers had made their country music breakthrough without observing any peculiarly country conventions. DeWitt's imagery is urban throughout: he writes of "hard concrete," of dressing in "tails" and pretending to be "on the town," of retreating to his "room" (not his home), and of dealing with the breakup by "countin' flowers on the wall," "playin' solitaire 'til dawn," and "smokin' cigarettes and watchin' Captain Kangaroo." There are no references to bloodshed, pleading, prayer, or alcohol, the standard rural remedies for breakups. The protagonist in the song seems more alienated than crushed.
Alas, "Flowers on the Wall" would be the Statlers' biggest record for Columbia. They were able to score two Top Ten novelty hits in 1967-"Ruthless," by Bobby Braddock, and "You Can't Have Your Kate and Edith, Too," by Braddock and Curly Putman. But their remaining singles, even the ones they wrote, never got enough airplay to make a significant cultural impact. That would come only after they switched to Mercury Records and began constructing their own idealized vision of home.
|The Statler Brothers perform at the Grand Ole Opry, mid 1960s|
"We started writing before we were actually doing much recording," recalled Don Reid, who joined his brother for the interview. "Then we got into the situation where we wanted to record our material but [Columbia] was saying, 'We've got other publishers we're looking at.' One of the best things that happened to us as writers was in 1970, when we went from Columbia over to Mercury Records. Jerry Kennedy was in charge of Mercury. He said, 'I want to sign you guys, but I've got to tell you right now I'm busy and I don't have time to look for material. You all are going to have to come up with your own songs.' That was like Brer Rabbit [saying], 'Don't throw me into that briar patch.' We were sitting there with catalogues of songs we'd been writing. And we were writing every day. We said, 'Hey, we'll take care of the material.'"
The Statlers' success with Mercury began in late 1970 with the charting of Harold's composition, "Bed of Rose's." The song, which ultimately peaked at #9, was by no means the first country tune about a whore with a heart of gold. But Reid's lyrics offer neither excuses nor apology for Rose being a whore. The only condemnation is for the hypocritical townspeople who condemn her even as they fail to measure up to her morally. The man in the song who sings her praises dwells fondly on the fact that Rose took him in and "wiped away [his] childhood" when he was just an eighteen-year-old street kid and she was thirty-five. True, there is a mention at the end that Rose died ("knowing that I really loved her"). But her death is simply a dramatic way of wrapping up the song, not punishment for her "sins." God, heaven, and hell make no appearance here.
Listen to "Bed of Roses" recorded by The Statler Brothers
Throughout country music's history, the city has been a place for simple country boys to avoid. Bristling with pretty snares, it symbolizes confusion, complexity, trickery, danger, and a general sensory overload. Think of "Detroit City," "Big City," "The Streets of Baltimore," "Streets of Bakersfield," "City Lights," "Heartbreak Hotel," and the unequivocal "I Wouldn't Live in New York City (If They Gave Me the Whole Dang Town)."
The city represented no such evils in Statler Brothers songs. Maybe it was because television carried gentler pictures of urban living into the Virginia hills, or, more likely, that the group's incessant touring after 1965 stripped away the city's strangeness and reduced it to just another stop along the road. Don Reid's "New York City" (which went to #19 in 1971) certainly doesn't present that metropolis as an earthly paradise. But it is the place the protagonist's pregnant girlfriend finds refuge to have their illegitimate baby. Whether "two angels in hell in New York City" refers to conditions imposed by the city or to the hell the spineless and absentee boyfriend has set in motion is left for the listener to decide.
Listen to "New York City" recorded by The Statler Brothers
In DeWitt and Don Reid's "Pictures" (#13, 1971), a man and his wife browse through photographs reflecting on the good times they've had together in trips to Cincinnati, Nashville, and Baltimore. There's no hint here of urban menace.
|The Statler Brothes as Lester "Roadhog" Moran and the Cadillac Cowboys|
The Statlers made their foray into what would prove to be a goldmine of nostalgia with "Do You Remember These" (#2, 1972). Jointly written by the Reid brothers and Larry Lee, the song was basically a rhyming catalog of pop culture artifacts from the 1950s-brand names, TV and movie characters, slang expressions, fashions, and playground diversions. It was a relentlessly sunny list, and one with which an entire stratum of the American population could identify. "We have people who were raised in the projects in Philadelphia or New York," Harold said, "and they write to us and say, 'You described my childhood.'"
Listen to "Do You Remember These" recorded by The Statler Brothers
Don vowed that his childhood years were almost as glorious as he portrays them in his songs. "They really were. We grew up in the '50s, and we saw such a peaceful, small-town, Norman Rockwell time ... Looking back, maybe we made it sweeter than it really was from time to time. But you always do that." Added Harold, "Well, we said in one song ["Carry Me Back"], 'It was always summer/And she was always mine.' That's kind of the way you remember it." [In their recording of "Carry Me Back" (#26, 1973) the Statlers sound like they're singing, "She was always kind," and that's the way it appears in various lyric sheets. Clearly, though, either word fits the message and mood.]
Listen to "Carry Me Back" recorded by The Statler Brothers
As the Statler Brothers grew in prominence and influence, Don Reid became their primary songwriter. "[He] was a great, great producer of songs all the time we were recording," said Harold. "He was just very prolific. On top of coming up with a large quantity of them, he came up with quality songs."
The younger Reid credited a great deal of his songwriting success to Johnny Cash. "We went to 'school' on John, just in the matter of studying the stuff he'd written before we got there [working with him]. We were writing a song one day-I think we were in an airport-and I was having trouble with a line I was working on, and I just showed John what the situation was. He wasn't one to say, 'You ought to do this' or 'You ought to do that.' He just said, 'The best way to say anything is just say it.' That was the best advice I ever got as a songwriter. Cut that fat meat away and quit trying to be too poetic, quit trying to put too many flowers in it. Just say it."
The Reid brothers said it quite well in "The Class of '57" (#6, 1972). Even to identify oneself as a member of a high school graduating class was unusual in country music at that time. It was the wrong focus. After all, education was for white-collar types, and country collars were blue. While there were underachievers in the class the Statlers sang about, others had escaped the hard labor so central to the country ethos: "Harvey runs a grocery store ... Paul sells life insurance and part-time real estate ... Jack's in lab research." The theme is that the loftiest dreams of youth often go awry, but the song is more bittersweet than tragic.
Listen to "The Class of '57" recorded by the Statler Brothers
Novelist Kurt Vonnegut took a special liking to "The Class of '57," as he explained in his essay collection Palm Sunday (1981). "I would actually like to have 'The Class of '57' become our national anthem for a little while," Vonnegut said. "I can see Americans singing in a grandstand at the Olympics somewhere, while one of our athletes wins a medal-for the decathlon, say, I can see tears streaming down the singers' cheeks when they get to these lines: 'Where Mavis fin'ly wound up/Is anybody's bet.' 'The Class of '57' could be an anthem for my generation, at least."
Vonnegut isn't making light of the Statlers' lyrical contributions, either. He told of driving "all the way" to Niagara Falls with his wife in 1980 "to hear them and to shake their hands. We had our pictures taken with them, too."
"The Class of '57" appeared on the 1972 album Country Music "Then and Now," a collection that also introduced the Statlers' formidable alter egos, Lester "Roadhog" Moran and the Cadillac Cowboys. Here, again, the band poked a stick into country music's eye by revealing just how painfully inept some "artists" can be. Anyone who has ever listened to rustic performers doing live shows-whether on stage or radio-knows that the outcome tends to be more ragged than right. The master of ceremonies-who is also usually the "star" and bandleader-is desperately jovial; the band members labor to find a common tempo; lyrics are mangled or forgotten; the instrumental breaks are memorable only for the enthusiasm with which they're undertaken; and the between-songs patter consists of minor variations on the phrase "Are you having a good time?"
|Johnny Cash and the Statlers at a taping of a Cash television special at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, 1980|
"Roadhog," as Harold played him, suffered all the above deficiencies and more. Many more. But he smoothed them over with his reassuring mantra, "Mighty fine! Mighty fine!" Although it was a merciless parody, the "Roadhog" segment on the album was so popular with fans that the Statlers expanded it into its own album in 1974, Alive at the Johnny Mack Brown High School.
Country music has had lots of songs that are sympathetic to women. But the objects of that sympathy were usually mothers, housewives, and waitresses. Don's "Monday Morning Secretary" (#20, 1973) carried the message that educated white-collar women with "good jobs" suffer, too. Whether or not it was written in response to the rising women's movement, the song does have a political edge in that it examines the secretary's tough working conditions. She is aware that she "does so much more than what she gets credit for." She fends off the salesman who makes a pass and tells her "the new dirty joke." And she must repeat this soul-killing schedule every day with a smile. "Then at five she goes home/To her cat and two rooms/And cries 'cause she's lonely as hell." It's a more complex figure than the devoted mother, wife, or girlfriend.
The Reids' "Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott" (#22, 1974) and DeWitt's "The Movies" (#10, 1977) were further plunges into pop culture and further proof that the Statlers valued contemplation over action. No honky-tonking, rodeoing, car racing, or tractor pulling for these guys. They celebrated the life supine.
|The Statler Brothers: Jimmy Fortune, Harold Reid, Phil Balsey, and Don Reid, c. 1982|
It should be noted that the Statlers covered many traditional country songs on their albums, among them "I Wonder How the Old Folks Are at Home," "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again," "Honky Tonk Blues," "When I Stop Dreaming," and even "City Lights" and "The Streets of Baltimore." But it was their singles, embedded with their own images and attitudes and heard on radio by millions, that stretched the boundaries of country. The album cuts are footnotes.
Throughout the 1970s, the Statler Brothers propagated small-town and middle-class values that were foreign to the prevailing country outlook. They did share with fellow country performers a mania for "going home" (which is, of course, another way of saying they wished to be young again). But for the Statlers, it is not a literal home, not a cabin in the hills where Mom and Dad (or their spirits) await them. Their idealized home is a community of their youthful peers where no parents intrude and where it is always Friday or Saturday night. To the Statlers, going home is more a preference than an obsession.
One of the most pronounced differences between conventional country and Statler country is the diminished role of parents. References to Mom and Dad are rare in the Statler-penned hits. They do occur, as in Don's "Silver Medals and Sweet Memories" (#18, 1977) and "Pictures," but even here parents are merely interesting characters, not emotionally vital ones. And, despite the quartet's gospel grounding, God is just as peripheral, a name often invoked but seldom appealed to for relief.
|The Statler Brothers with Jerry Kennedy (center)|
During the 1980s, the Statler Brothers had even greater chart success, achieving three #1s, seven Top Fives, and eight Top Tens. But by this time, they had already established themselves as lyrical outsiders, and their observations had become mainstream. DeWitt left the group in 1982, a victim of Crohn's disease, and died in 1990. Jimmy Fortune replaced him and single-handedly wrote the group's three top hits: "Elizabeth" (1983), "My Only Love" (1984), and "Too Much on My Heart" (1985). From 1992 to 1999, The Statler Brothers Show was consistently the highest-rated program on The Nashville Network (TNN). Even so, it was finally canceled as the network searched in vain for a younger audience. The Statler Brothers gave their farewell concert in 2002.
From the start, the Statlers sound was so old-fashioned and their appearance so amiable and reassuring that critics paid scant attention to their truly revolutionary lyrics. But listen closely to their formative hits and you will hear the creaky doors of country music being flung open.
EDWARD MORRIS is a reporter and columnist for CMT.com and former country music editor for Billboard. His articles on Mel Street, Alabama, and Tim McGraw appeared previously in the Journal of Country Music.