The Statler Brothers
The Statler Brothers
The Statler Brothers took an old form—the gospel quartet—modernized it, and charged into country music as a vocal group in the mid-1960s. Since then they have earned more awards than any other country act and have topped the readers polls in Music City News almost every single year. Despite the band’s name, only two of the four members are brothers, and none of them are named Statler; one would be hard pressed to find any falseness or stagy contrivance about the men otherwise. As Ken Robinson put it in the Fresno Bee, the Statler Brothers—Harold and Don Reid, Jimmy Fortune, and Philip Balsley—“are kings of ‘down-home, ‘ having spent their lives in and around Staunton, Virginia. As such, their [work] succeeds in warming the heart and soul with sentimental paeans to true love and days gone by…. Beneath a surface of cornball humor and nostalgia lie thoughtful lyrics that point to our human travails and longings.”
As vocal ensembles gained popularity in country music, groups like Alabama and the Kentucky Headhunters lured younger generations of fans. The Statler
Members include Philip Balsley (bom August 8, 1939, in Augusta County, VA), second tenor; Lew C. DeWitt (bom March 8, 1938, in Roanoke County, VA; left group in 1982; replaced by Jimmy Fortune [bom in Charlottesville, VA]; died August 15, 1990), tenor; Joe McDorman (left band, 1964), baritone; Don Reid (bom June 5, 1945, in Staunton, VA; joined group, 1964), tenor; and Harold Reid (bom August 21, 1939, in Augusta County), bass.
Group formed in Stauton, VA, as the Four Star Quartet, 1948; name later changed to the Kingsmen; became the Statler Brothers, c. 1964, and signed with Mercury Records; had first hit single, “Flowers on the Wall,” 1964; recorded more than forty albums and had ten Number One country singles; stars of numerous live concerts and command performances at the White House; hosts of The Statler Brothers Show, the Nashville Network (TNN), 1991.
Selected awards: Six certified gold albums and two platinum albums; voted top vocal group by the Country Music Association eleven times; thirty-six citations from the Music City News awards; three Grammy Awards, including one for best pop song, 1965, for “Flowers on the Wall.”
Brothers paved the way for such acts, but they offer a more wholesome approach that appeals to fans of mainstream country music. Lead singer Don Reid admitted in the Richmond News Leader: “I guess we’re just dull…. We try not to get involved in anything controversial. We entertain and keep it light. We leave the messages to Western Union.”
Every member of the Statler Brothers, past and present, hails from Virginia. Three of them—Harold and Don Reid and Phil Balsley—were born and raised in Staunton, a small town in the Shenandoah Valley. Their earliest experience with music was in a church choir in their hometown, so it was natural for them to gravitate to gospel music. By 1948 Harold Reid, Balsley, Joe McDorman, and Lew C. DeWitt from nearby Roanoke County formed a group called the Four Star Quartet. They sang primarily at gospel concerts and church gatherings in the Shenandoah Valley and eventually changed the name of their outfit to the Kingsmen.
McDorman left the group in the 1960s, and Harold’s younger brother Don Reid joined. The Reid brothers have become the unofficial spokespersons for the act over the years, especially the wisecracking Harold. During the 1950s and early 1960s the group honed its talents to a professional level, with Don Reid at baritone, Phil Balsley in the second tenor range, Harold at bass, and DeWitt taking the high tenor. Their break in the business came when they decided to diverge from straight gospel and sing country songs in four-part harmony instead. From the beginning they performed songs they wrote themselves, including the immensely popular “Flowers on the Wall.”
The name Statler comes from a local brand of tissues the men found in a hotel room one night. Harold saw the name on the tissue box and recommended it as the moniker for their new country group. Don Reid commented in the Los Angeles Times: “We could just as easily be known as the Kleenex Brothers.”
The Statlers popularity heightened when Johnny Cash caught their act in 1964 and engaged the foursome as an opener for his road show. The Statlers worked with Cash for nearly eight years, and during that time they became almost as well known as the Man in Black himself. Their first hit, “Flowers on the Wall,” topped the country and the pop charts. Though they faced competition from the Beatles and the Supremes, the Statler Brothers won the 1965 Grammy Award for best pop song.
Numerous hits followed, including “Ruthless,” “Bed of Roses,” “I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You,” “Who Am I to Say?,” “Elizabeth,” “Do You Remember These?,” “Too Much on My Heart,” and “Class of’57.” The latter song, a serious look at the lives of some small-town high school graduates, led acclaimed novelist Kurt Vonnegut to call the Statlers “America’s poets.” Despite Don Reid’s assertion that the group would stay away from including political messages in their works, the Statlers also scored a hit with “More Than a Name on a Wall,” a song about war veterans.
Voted vocal group of the year every year between 1972 and 1979 by the Country Music Association, the Statler Brothers earned the honor several times in the 1980s as well. Nowhere have the Statlers dominated more than in fan polls, however. For more than two decades, the fan-voted Music City News awards have named the Statler Brothers vocal group of the year virtually every year. Even the arrival of such groups as Alabama and Shen-andoah have done little to erode the popularity of the Statlers, who have won more awards than any act in the entire history of country music.
It is wonder, then, that cable television’s Nashville Network (TNN) has engaged the Statler Brothers to host a weekly television variety show. The easygoing, joke-strewn Statler style is perfectly suited for the television variety format. The Statler Brothers Show was the first variety show produced by TNN, and the musical foursome write and produce much of the material. They also choose the guests, who have included such classic performers as Jerry Lee Lewis and newcomers like Mark Chestnutt. Because cable stations are under less pressure to produce hit programming, it is likely that the Statlers will become a Saturday night staple on the Nashville Network.
Most country musicians relocate to Nashville even before they find success, but the Statler Brothers have never left Staunton, Virginia. They live there and run their business from a former elementary school that the Reids and their children attended. Several family members help arrange road trips and guide fans through an on-site museum. Harold Reid told the Fresno Bee that the musicians were “too green or too stubborn” to trade their roots for life on Music Row. “We just didn’t want to leave home,” he confessed. “We have family and friends here. We’re closer to them by living here.”
The Statler Brothers are also known for their charity work. Their benefit concert to aid cleanup efforts after Hurricane Hugo earned $200,000. They have also organized and starred in an annual Fourth of July gala in Staunton for almost a quarter of a century.
Richmond News Leader contributor Joe Edwards described the singers as “four family men with bedrock values appealing to the heartland with grassroots songs about love, nostalgia and growing up in small town USA.” Stability is even evident in the quartet’s membership. The group’s only personnel change occurred when DeWitt had to retire in 1982 due to illness—he died in 1990—and was replaced by Jimmy Fortune.
Charlotte Observer correspondent Ken Garfield observed of the perennially popular quartet that aside from the stage name, “there is no more falsehood to find in a group that seemingly has been around longer than the steel guitar; that has turned simplicity into a country music art form; and that has struck a sweet-sounding chord over 25 years of concerts, albums, awards, and TV appearances.” Garfield concluded: “Let the world and country music change, say the Statler Brothers. They can live with it, just so long as they can keep the customers satisfied with a theme that hasn’t varied since they rode out of Staunton.”
On Mercury Records, except where noted
Flowers on the Wall, Columbia, 1966.
The Statler Brothers Sing the Big Hits, Columbia, 1967.
Paroners in Rhyme, 1985.
Four for the Show, 1986.
Radio Gospel Favorites, 1986.
Maple Street Memories, 1987.
The Statler Brothers Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 (includes previously unreleased songs), 1988.
Live and Sold Out, 1989.
All American Country, 1991.
Words and Music, PolyGram, 1992.
Bed of Roses.
Pictures of Moments to Remember.
Country Music Then and Now.
The Statler Brothers Sing Country Symphonies in E Major.
Alive at the Johnny Mack Brown High School.
Sons of the Motherland.
Best of the Statler Brothers.
Holy Bible: Old Testament.
Holy Bible: New Testament.
Holy Bible: New & Old Testament.
The World’s Favorite Hymns.
Harold, Don, Phil and Lew.
The Country America Loves.
Best of the Statler Brothers, Volume II: Rides Again.
Carry Me Back.
Entertainers on and off Record.
The Legend Goes On.
The Statler Brothers’ Tenth Anniversary.
The Statler Brothers Today.
Music, Memories & You.
Best of the Statler Brothers, Vol. 1.
Best of the Statler Brothers, Vol. 2: Rides Again.
The Big Hits, Columbia.
Oh Happy Day, Columbia.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977.
Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell, 1974.
Stambler, Irwin and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, St. Martin’s, 1969.
Charlotte Observer, February 1, 1991.
Country Music, September/October 1991.
Fresno Bee, February 9, 1990; February 13, 1990.
Greensboro News & Record, February 22, 1991.
Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1990.
Richmond News Leader, February 18, 1989.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, May 24, 1990; July 3, 1991.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 1, 1989.
Saturday Evening Post, September 1984.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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