About The Artist
Veronica Loretta "Roni" Stoneman is the one member of the second generation of the Stoneman Family who carved out a separate career for herself in country music. In doing so, she overcame numerous handicaps while enduring a number of personal problems. Known for both her banjo picking skills and a natural flair for comedy exhibited on the television program Hee Haw, she managed to become a survivor in the Music City rat race.
As the youngest girl in the extended family of Ernest and Hattie Frost Stoneman, Roni missed out on the family's early prosperity and some of the worst aspects of the dire poverty of the early and middle thirties. Nonetheless, she had a difficult childhood including a near brush with death when she fell into the family outhouse being rescued from its contents up to her neck. She picked up some musical skills from her brother Scott which she first exhibited by working in the bands of Johnny Hopkins (nephew of her father's old Galax friend Al Hopkins), Benny and Vallie Cain, and eventually Pop Stoneman's Little Pebbles that won the band contest at Galax in 1956.
Roni could be said to have arrived musically when she replaced Porter Church as banjo picker in the Bluegrass Champs which soon evolved into the Stoneman Family about 1960. Still, Roni's life was difficult. She married Eugene Cox in April 1956 and by mid-1962 had four children (plus one miscarriage). She initially supplemented her part time income by taking in washings. While Cox was not physically abusive, he proved to be relatively shiftless. Despite these difficulties, she made history of sorts at nineteen, becoming the first female to play bluegrass banjo on a recording with her cut of "Lonesome Road Blues" n the Folkways album American Banjo, Scruggs Style (FA 2315).
After recording long play albums on Starday SLP 200 and SLP 275) in 1962 and 1963, Jack Clement took over management of the Stonemans. Following a brief movement to Beaumont, Texas, they spent a year in California, recording an album for World Pacific that took them to Nashville in late1965 where they secured a syndicated television program and a contract with MGM Records. Largely a visual act, the Stoneman Family had an extended engagement at a Nashville club, The Black Poodle, that made them a force to be reckoned with, at least for a while. In 1967, they won the CMF Vocal Group of the Year Award. Meanwhile, Roni, after divorcing Eugene Cox, married North Carolina educator George Hemrick the same year her father died.
Researching Roni's musical career provided some insights into her stage personality as well as her personal life.
In 1967, she was interviewed by Charles Jackson of the Tennessean. The time was the 42nd WSM Grand Ole Opry celebration and all the names in country music were in town. The Stonemans were doing a show at the Black Poodle in Nashville. Charles paints a visual for the readers:
"Only one spotlight stared at the stage, and into it stepped a thin, lanky girl who squinted at the light, took a final purposeful chew on the wad of gum in her jaw and began a country ballad which, if not beautiful, certainly is memorable:
Charles wrote on as the rest of the family joined her onstage for a number. It came her turn again to show her humorous side.
"Time for me to sing one again, Fat Boy," Roni announced to her siblings at the end (of Jim Stoneman's number.)
Mr. Jackson told of an earlier conversation Roni had, grabbing a quick sandwich before the show at breakfast at the Noel Hotel. "I don't think I could do anything else in the world." An aspiring singer had approached her trying to pitch his songs and commented, "I know what you mean — you got to love it." Then Roni went on, "No, I'm not talking about loving it or hating it," she said quietly. "I just mean simply that I don't think there is anything else I could do — I don't think I know anything else in the world except this."
Roni's marriage to Hemrick took her farther away from the remaining Stonemans as she lived in North Carolina for a time. However she remained with them through the remainder of their MGM contract in November 1968 and a new RCA contract in 1969 and 1970. George consistently argued that the rest of the family was holding Roni back and that she could do better on her own. At the same time he proved physically and verbally abusive and belittled her for being a dumb hillbilly. After giving birth to daughter Georgie in February 1971, she pretty well left the group.
An article promoting her appearance at the "Shy Clown" in Reno in 1976 shows her ability to roll with the flow. It seems Roni and her manager-husband, George Hemrick were invited to a formal Congressional ball in Washington, DC. She dressed in a long gown, seemingly the picture of elegance. She was introduced to Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina. Her husband told the senator his wife was a singer. Senator Ervin then basically pushed Roni into to doing a command performance with the orchestra, led by Lester Lanin. Being the show business personality she was, she picked the song she had been singing for years — "Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog," as only she could do. For a moment, the audience was shocked into silence; then they broked into laughter and applause. Roni had won over another audience.
Roni again made some history in June of 1976. She was signed for a three-month engagement at Florida's Disneyworld. At the time, it was the longest ever negotiated engagement by a Nashville entertainer. Reportedly she entertained over 250,000 fans during that stint.
She married Bill Zimmerman in the spring of 1985, but the marriage ran its course by the fall of 1986.
In 1987, Roni married Larry Corya. The couple had visited Preston, Kentucky and Bath County and were impressed. They got married in the Blevins Grocery and invited the whole town. Roni told writer James Mulcahy, "Five Thousand people showed up at our wedding. It was phenomenal. Princess Di had nothing on my wedding."
They bought land there (58 acres) from Eddia Mae Stewart, but instead of a home, something else ended up being built - Roni Stoneman's Music Park. It was located off Interstate 64 "...on a hill overlooking Owingsville and Preston. The park opened Labor Day weekend in 1989 for a festival. Their vision for the park was to be family-oriented. No alcohol, no drugs and no cussing. Their plans also included a future Stoneman Family Museum and een a Hee Haw Museum. Proceeds from the Hee Haw museum were to go to the Abused Children and Women Center.
About 200 finished camping spaces would be on there and would be open about eight months a year. A music barn and a Friday night square dance were to operate all year round. Development costs were said to be $250,000 according to Larry Corya.
But by early 1990, all those plans seemingly disappeared. Nothing got built. No music park took shape. Only stage lights were left from that festival in September 1989. Instead a trail of debts owed was all that remained. Payments for the land were missed. The festival was said to have brought in $50,000 but the money seemed unaccounted for. Roni and her husband Larry lived in Smyrna, TN at the time. News reports indicated they filed for bankruptcy in Nashville on December 20, 1989.
By spring 1991, the couple announced their marriage was terminated.
As a solo artist, Roni made little headway until she joined the cast of Hee Haw in 1973 which proved to be the highpoint of her career. It provided the opportunity to display her comedic skills, particularly in skits where she played the bedraggled housewife at the ironing board, "Ida Lee Nagger," continuously locked in verbal combat with her shiftless husband "LaVerne" (played by Gordie Tapp). Roni based her characterization on arguing neighbors she heard in her Carmody Hills childhood as well as Marjorie Main in the Ma and Pa Kettle movies of the late forties and early fifties. She also played banjo, sang, and appeared in skits, most notably as "Mophead," the maid in the "Empty Arms Hotel" skits.
The Hee! Haw! connection also provided her with sufficient recognition to play personals to further supplement her income and to sometimes play engagements with the remaining Stonemans. During the early seventies Roni recorded a few singles and in 1989 did a pair of cassettes, one instrumental First Lady of Banjo and one vocal Pure and Country, both released on the family's Stonehouse label. At the same time, domestic tranquility eluded her as she went through three more failed marriages.
Dismissal from Hee Haw in 1991 brought about another period of readjustment as she experimented with an all-girls band, the Daisy Maes, and briefly operated a theater in Flagler Beach, Florida. She ultimately found sufficient bookings to support herself. More recently, she did a solo compact disc, Bummin' Around with support from long-time support musician Stu Geisbert, and three bluegrass discs on the Patuxent label with sisters Donna and Patsy (the third only with Donna, the only remaining sister).
She also wrote an autobiography Pressing On (with Ellen Wright). Through a variety of career ups and downs, Roni, like her parents and siblings, has proved to be a survivor in the changing world of country music.
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