One of just a few African-American country artists signed to major labels in the wake of Charley Pride's tremendous success in the 1970s, Stoney Edwards had a style distinct not only from Pride's but also from that of any other country performer of his time. John Morthland, who wrote the booklet notes for a compilation release that appeared after Edwards's death, described the artist's voice as a "grainy, stray-cat voice." Edwards wrote many of his own songs, whose lyrics reflected the hard life he led. He never topped the charts in the same way Pride did, but industry figures and music writers admired his work. The prominent American roots-music historian Peter Guralnick devoted an entire chapter of his pioneering essay collection Lost Highways to Edwards, pointing to "the weight of his compositions, the wealth of detail, the selectivity of his art."
Edwards was born December 24, 1929, near Seminole, Oklahoma. One of seven children born to parents he called Bub and Red, he was given the name Frenchy, after a local liquor bootlegger who stopped by to visit on the day he was born. Edwards's father was a farmer of African and Irish ancestry, and his mother was Native American. Although his mother was a music teacher, Edwards never learned to read either music or books. During his teenage years Edwards lived often with his father's brothers, who operated three illegal liquor stills in different Oklahoma towns.
The dangers of living outside the law were matched by those caused by Edwards's tri-racial heritage. "I was never really accepted by any race," Edwards told Guralnick. "Sometimes I wished I was black as a skillet or white as a damned sheet, but the way I am it's always been a motherf∗∗∗er." Edwards grew up hearing country music on radio broadcasts, and he especially liked the Texas-flavored swing of bandleader Bob Wills. Moving from place to place, though, Edwards rarely had the chance to hear music of any kind, whether live or on records or radio. He made a guitar out of a bucket and a piece of wire when he was young, and at some point he began to fill the void by writing songs of his own. "I don't think they rhymed or anything," he told Guralnick. "They'd just be about a bug crawling through the sand, an ant maybe, some kind of foolishness."
In 1950, after his mother's death, and with federal liquor agents on his trail, Edwards moved to Oakland, California, and then north to the blue-collar suburb of Richmond. In the 1950s and 1960s he worked at a series of jobs: car wash attendant, maintenance man, machinist, construction worker, and crane and forklift operator at a shipyard. Edwards married his first wife, Rosemary, in 1954, and after some resistance she ended up encouraging him to pursue his love of music. He had no dreams of a star career, but he began singing in Northern California bars in off-hours. On one occasion, Guralnick reported, a patron yelled, "I'm stoned, and he probably is, too," giving Edwards a nickname that stuck.
A 1968 industrial accident ended his career as a laborer: he was trapped in a sealed tank and suffered blood poisoning as his oxygen ran out. Doctors wrote Edwards off as terminal, and he spent some time in a coma and months more in a disoriented state, refusing social security disability payments and coming close to being institutionalized. As he slowly recovered, Edwards began writing songs again and turned his attention to helping another sick man: Bob Wills, whose music Edwards had admired as a teenager, was ailing, and Edwards organized a benefit concert to help with his medical bills. Performing at the concert in 1970, Edwards got the attention of a local lawyer, Ray Sweeney, who followed country music and had connections at Capitol Records' Los Angeles headquarters.
Sweeney pushed Edwards as a potential successor to Pride, and within a few weeks Edwards was signed to Capitol. Backed by the then little-known Wills tribute band Asleep at the Wheel, he went into the studio. His first single, "A Two-Dollar Toy," was a sentimental number that he composed, referring to the hard times he had so recently gone through: the song's protagonist thinks about leaving his family, but stops after tripping over a child's toy in the doorway, being thus reminded of what he would lose. "A Two-Dollar Toy" was successful enough to make Edwards a steady member of Capitol's roster in the 1970s and to attract songwriting contributions from top writers.
Edwards cracked Billboard magazine's country top 20 twice, with "She's My Rock" in 1972 and "Mississippi You're on My Mind," written by top folk songwriter Jesse Winchester, in 1975. "She's My Rock" was later covered by country vocal virtuoso George Jones, who once invited Edwards on stage to sing it. Edwards paid tribute to two of his heroes, Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, in another hit, "Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul," but Frizzell responded with a racial epithet when Edwards met him in person.
The epithet in question played a role when Capitol released Edwards's "Blackbird" in 1975; although the song's message was one of racial pride ("Blackbird, hold your head high …"), it included the phrase "just a couple of country niggers," and radio stations heeded calls that it be banned. Within a decade, the term would be used commonly enough among African-American hip-hop entertainers, but at the time the controversy was enough to put an end to Edwards's major-label career. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he recorded for the small JMI label owned by producer Cowboy Jack Clement, and the independent labels Boot and Musical America.
Edwards returned to his farm in Oklahoma, living with his second wife, June, and his three children. In 1984 he found his career slowed by another accident: he shot himself in the leg during a quick-draw contest, and the leg had to be amputated. By 1990 he was suffering from both diabetes and lung cancer. The cancer responded to treatment, however, and in 1991 Edwards returned to the studio and released the album Just for Old Times' Sake on England's Country Music People label. The all-star roster of backing musicians on the album, including ace Texas fiddler Johnny Gimble, former Texas Playboys vocalist Leon Rausch, and Asleep at the Wheel bandleader Ray Benson, testified to the high regard in which Edwards was held in the country music industry. Edwards developed stomach cancer in the 1990s, and died on April 5, 1997. By that time, younger country fans were beginning to rediscover his unique body of work, and the collection Poor Folks Stick Together: The Best of Stoney Edwards appeared on the Razor & Tie label the following year.
For the Record …
Born on December 24, 1929, in Seminole, OK; died on April 5, 1997; married twice; three children.
Performed in bars in Richmond, CA, area, 1950s-1960s; organized benefit concert for bandleader Bob Wills, 1970; recorded for Capitol label, 1971-76; recorded for JMI and other small labels.
Stoney Edwards, Capitol, 1971.
She's My Rock, Capitol, 1973.
Mississippi, You're On My Mind, Capitol, 1975.
Blackbird, Capitol, 1976.
No Way to Back Down a Memory, 1981.
Just for Old Times' Sake, Country Music People, 1991.
Poor Folks Stick Together: The Best of Stoney Edwards, Razor & Tie, 1998.
Guralnick, Peter, Lost Highways: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians, Harper & Row, 1979.
Kingsbury, Paul, editor, The Encyclopedia of Country Music, Oxford, 1998.
Billboard, May 23, 1998, p. 24.
Guardian (London, England), August 12, 1997, p. 14.
"Frenchy 'Stoney' Edwards," Oklahoma Historical Society, http://www.ok-history.mus.ok.us/enc/edwards.htm (May 25, 2005).
"Stoney Edwards," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 25, 2005).
Additional information was obtained from John Morthland's booklet notes to Poor Folks Stick Together: The Best of Stoney Edwards, Razor & Tie, 1998.
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