The Stoneman Family originated with Ernest V. ‘Pop’ Stoneman (b. 25 May 1893, in a log cabin near Monarat, Carroll County, Virginia, USA, d. 14 June 1968, Nashville, Tennessee, USA), who learned to play guitar, autoharp, banjo and harmonica and showed a talent for quickly learning songs that he either heard or read in early songbooks. He worked in cotton mills, coalmines and as a carpenter in various parts of the area. It was while working as the last at Bluefield, West Virginia, that he heard the first recordings of fellow Virginian Henry Whitter. Stoneman was unimpressed by Whitter’s singing and like others, believed that he could do better. He travelled to New York where, providing his own autoharp and harmonica backings, he auditioned for Columbia Records and OKeh Records. The former showed no interest, but he made his first recordings for OKeh in September 1924, including his million-seller, ‘The Sinking Of The Titanic’. It proved to be one of the biggest hits of the 20s and has since been recorded by many artists, including Roy Acuff. The records sold well enough and further sessions soon followed; on one he was accompanied by Emmett Lundy, a noted Virginian fiddler, and on occasions, he recorded with his fiddle-playing wife Hattie Stoneman (b. 1900, d. 22 July 1976, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, USA). In 1926, he recorded for RCA - Victor Records with his first band the Dixie Mountaineers and later with the Blue Ridge Cornshuckers. In the following years many recordings were made, which saw release on various labels, some under pseudonyms such as Slim Harris, Ernest Johnson, Uncle Ben Hawkins and Jim Seaney. In July 1927, he recorded at the noted sessions at Bristol, Tennessee, where Ralph Peer also recorded the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Owing to the Depression, he did not record between 1929 and 1933, but even so he had proved so popular that between 1925 and 1934, he had still recorded over 200 songs. Some recordings were with other musicians, including his banjoist cousin George Stoneman, fiddlers Alex ‘Uncle Eck’ Dunford and Kahle Brewer and on his last pre-World War II session in 1934, he was accompanied by his eldest son Eddie (b. 30 June 1920, Galax, Virginia, USA, d. 14 September 2001, Tennessee, USA), who played banjo and took some vocals. In 1931, financially insecure in spite of the earnings from record sales, he moved to Washington DC, where, to support his family (he and his wife had 23 children in all), he worked as a carpenter in a naval gun factory. Some of the children learned to play instruments during childhood and when, after the war, he gradually began to return to entertaining, his band was made up of his wife and their own children.
A winning appearance on a television quiz show in 1956 led him to reactivate his career. With his wife and five of his children, he recorded again (on Folkways Records) in 1957. After adding some contemporary country and bluegrass music to the old-time and folk songs that he had always performed, the Stoneman Family became a popular touring act. They played on the Grand Ole Opry in 1962 and even appeared at Fillmore West in San Francisco, America’s first psychedelic ballroom. In 1964, they moved their home to California, where they became active on the west coast folk scene and appeared at the prestigious Monterey Folk Festival. They also played on various network television shows in the 60s, including the Jimmy Dean TV Variety Show, and between 1966 and 1968, they hosted their own series. At this time, the group consisted of Pop (autoharp, guitar), Scotty (b. Calvin Scott Stoneman, 1933, d. 4 March 1973; fiddle), Van Haden (b. 1941, d. 3 June 1995; guitar), Donna (b. Donna Laverne Stoneman, 7 February 1934, Alexandria, Virginia, USA; mandolin), Roni (b. Veronica Loretta Stoneman, 5 May 1938, Washington, DC, USA; banjo) and Jimmy (b. 8 March 1937, Washington, DC, USA, d. 22 September 2002, Smyrna, Tennessee, USA; bass). They had five minor hits with recordings on MGM Records in the late 60s but later recorded for other labels including Starday and RCA. In 1967, the Country Music Association voted the Stoneman Family the Vocal Group Of The Year. Ernest Stoneman made his last recordings on 11 April 1968, and continued to perform with the group almost up to his death. He was in all probability the first person ever to record using an autoharp and he is well remembered by exponents for his ability to play the melody line, instead of merely playing chords, the standard method of playing the instrument, even by its inventor (this ability is demonstrated on some of his recordings, including ‘Stoney’s Waltz’). He is also accepted as being the only country musician to record on both Edison cylinders and modern stereo albums and he was also the leading performer of string-band music in the Galax area of Virginia.
After ‘Pop’ Stoneman’s death, his daughter Patti (b. 27 May 1925, Galax, Virginia, USA; autoharp) gave up her solo career to join with Donna, Roni, Van and Jimmy and as the Stoneman Family, they continued to play his music and toured all over the USA and Europe. Scotty Stoneman, who also worked with the Blue Grass Champs and the Kentucky Colonels, won many fiddle competitions, including the national contest on several occasions and at the time of his death, in 1973, he was rated one of the world’s finest bluegrass fiddle players. Hattie Stoneman, who first recorded in 1925, died in hospital aged 75. In later years, Donna left to concentrate on gospel music, and Roni became a featured star of the television show Hee Haw. Patti, Jimmy and Van continued to play as the Stoneman Family. Another brother John (b. 20 August 1923, Galax, Virginia, USA, d. 19 April 2001, Jonesville, Virginia, USA; autoharp) was one of the original members of the family group but later in life become a farmer. Twin brothers Gene (b. 1930, USA, d. 15 August 2005, Maryland, USA) and Dean (b. 1931) performed for a time in the Maryland area as the Stoneman Brothers, until Dean formed his Vintage Bluegrass band. In 1981, several members of the family reunited to record a special album. Dean Stoneman died of a lung complaint in Lanham, Maryland, on 28 February 1989.