Paradise by the lone stoplight
By Ralph Berrier Jr.
Part 2 of a six-part series
Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times
||Ronnie Stoneman (arms raised) leads a bluegrass jam session outside the Floyd Country Store in Floyd, Va., during the Floyd Friday Night Jamboree.
FLOYD My fellow travelers along "The Crooked Road" are professional, exceptionally talented journalists. They don’t know a banjo from Shinola, but are wonderful fellows nonetheless.
Seth Gitner, a New Jersey guy, is a former photojournalist who now works in "multimedia," a fancy way of saying he handles big online projects for roanoke.com. He's shooting video and recording audio from our trip for an ambitious "multimedia" project documenting our Crooked Road odyssey.
Kyle Green is the photographer and the new guy from Oregon. I don’t want to suggest he experienced culture shock during the early days of the journey, but he did have a tough time deciphering the mellifluous accents of Southwest Virginia’s residents. And he was stunned into stony silence by the rebel flags dotting the roadsides and the campsite at Ralph Stanley’s festival.
Kyle, we’re not in Portland anymore.
So you can imagine my surprise as I sat enjoying a cold one on the outdoor patio of Mama Lazardo’s pizza parlor in downtown Floyd, awaiting the start of the Friday Night Jamboree across the street at the Floyd Country Store, when all of a sudden Seth the Jersey guy came running up and hollered, "Ralph, there’s a woman from ‘Hee-Haw’ here!"
*High-speed connection recommended
Seth didn’t know exactly who Roni Stoneman was, but I sure did. For 20 years, she was the banjo-playing token hillbilly girl surrounded by the gaggle of lovely Daisy Mae types on the long-running, cornpone music and sketch show that was on my grandparents’ TV every Saturday night at 7.
Stoneman has been popping up everywhere lately. Sightings have been logged in Floyd, Galax and Mount Airy, N.C., all hotbeds of old-time mountain music. Her friend and manager, Stu Geisbert, has taken her to these places to reconnect her with her mountain roots. After nearly four decades standing in the bright lights of Nashville, Stoneman has gone native.
"I didn’t know people still played like this," she said as an old-time fiddle jam session raged outside the venerable store.
If someone hadn't told me who she was, I would never have recognized her. No longer the pigtailed, gap-toothed hillbilly she played for laughs on "Hee-Haw," at 67 she’s a bleach blonde casually dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans.
Stoneman occasionally joined the jam and played her signature bluegrass banjo style, distinguishing herself from the old-time clawhammer players in the session. Four fiddle players led the jam, including regulars Mac Traynham and Clyde Williams.
Down the street, banjo player Garland Finn led a quartet of pickers in a bluegrass jam. Up the street, a couple of other young guitarists worked out the licks to "Big Mon" and "Bill Cheatam."
Lest we forget, the music inside the rustic old store building is what people pay $3 to hear. More than 100 people have wedged themselves inside the stifling building, which hasn’t been operated as a real store in a decade. A bluegrass band holds court and dancers pound a clackety-clack rhythm on the old wooden floor.
Floyd on Friday night is a bazaar of sounds and sights. In recent years, two coffee shops, a bookstore, an ice cream parlor, a pizza joint and a bar have opened along a single city block. The night Stoneman was in town, no fewer than five sites in this one-stoplight town boasted music. The mix of people rural folks, tourists, students from Virginia Tech and Radford University and the back-to-earth types who were captivated by the county’s pastoral beauty and founded communes and organic farms 30 years ago makes Floyd seem like Mayberry in tie-dyes and Birkenstocks.
"I’ve been coming for about three years," said Stoneman’s manager, whose son went to Tech. "I’ve been taking Roni all over. I think she had forgotten about places like this."
Stoneman is an heiress to one of Southwest Virginia’s greatest musical legacies. Her parents, Ernest and Hattie Stoneman, were from Grayson County and were recording stars in the early days of 78 rpm records. They were the "name" band at the famous RCA Victor recording sessions in Bristol, Tenn., in 1927. Those sessions made stars of the Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers, but in those days the Stonemans were just as popular.
The family’s fortunes declined considerably during the Depression, so the brood moved to Washington, D.C. Many of the 20 children yes, 20 were musicians, and several formed a group that sold plenty of records, won awards and starred in a popular TV show in the 1960s. Not insignificantly, the next generation rescued Ernest and Hattie from obscurity and returned them to their places as music pioneers.
A formidable musician, Roni claimed to be the first woman to record the three-finger, Earl Scruggs-style bluegrass banjo style. She made a nice living on "Hee-Haw," but like many older one-time country stars, she can’t get Nashville to notice anymore. So, she’s been coming back to the mountains where she visited her granny each summer as a child. There she is, playing banjo in a jam session at Floyd and loving every second.
I returned to Floyd by myself a few weeks later to find Stoneman wasn’t there. Inside the store, Mac Traynham played fiddle and led the Blue Ridge Mountaineers as a few old folks danced in the open area before the stage. When Traynham launched into "Wreck of the Old 97," a song Ernest and Hattie Stoneman once recorded, he sang and played fiddle at the same time, no mean feat. Fourteen dancers hit the floor. The store was full, as usual.
"We’ll play an old one we all know," Traynham said into the microphone before kicking off the fiddle tune "Mississippi Sawyer." Dancers popped up like bubbles in a simmering pot, first in ones and twos, then in groups until the dance floor boiled with life. When the band played an old waltz, couples floated one after another as if they were teens at the senior prom.
On the way home, I tuned the radio to 98.1 FM, good old WBRF out of Galax, which every Friday broadcasts the "Blue Ridge Back Roads" concert from the local Rex Theater. Live onstage was Roni Stoneman, cracking wise and picking her banjo with a pickup band of local musicians. Thanks to WBRF’s 100,000-watt broadcast signal, the music and applause could be heard in four states. That's about the size of Stoneman’s grin, which I could almost see on the radio.