The Statler Brothers Leave The Road
Excerpted from the magazine for Billboard.com.One of country music's longest-running road shows came to a close Oct. 26, when the Statler Brothers played their last concert performance in the 10,000-seat Salem Civic Center in Salem, Va.
"It was the biggest place close to home that we could do," says Don Reid, the Statlers' lead vocalist, noting that Salem is just "down the road" from the venerable quartet's headquarters in its Staunton, Va., hometown.
Reid says that the Statlers -- which also include his real brother and bass vocalist Harold Reid, plus baritone Philip Balsley and Jimmy Fortune (who replaced the late tenor Lew DeWitt in 1982) -- feel that they've gone out "at the top of their game.
"We talked about it the last couple years, that we couldn't last forever, so why not [stop performing live] when we want to-instead of when we had to," Reid says. "So we gave all our employees a year's notice in January to get emotionally and financially adjusted.
"When we came home a month ago, it was the first time I completely unpacked my suitcase in 35 and-a-half years."
Now 57, Reid, who's been on the road since he was 18, feels "a certain lightness" to go with his newly emptied suitcase. But as Marshall Grant, Johnny Cash's original bass player and the self-managed Statlers' longtime agent, says, "It was a great ride."
The ride began in the early 1960s when the Statler Brothers, who had formed in 1955 and later took their name from a box of tissues in a hotel room, first opened for Cash. Grant had seen them perform in 1963 and remembered them the following year when Cash's band was searching for background vocalists.
The Statler Brothers were contacted and met up with the Cash show in Canton, Ohio. "John hadn't seen them at this point, so we all went downstairs to the boiler room, John and [guitarist] Luther Perkins and myself and the four Brothers, and did 'Ballad of a Teenage Queen' and all the Sun records that had background voices on them," Grant recalls. "John called them out halfway through the show, and they were absolutely perfect. They followed us to Rockford [Ill.] the next day and did the same thing, and we hired them."
The Statler Brothers' own historic recording career commenced when Cash was late for a session at Owen Bradley's fabled Quonset Hut studio. Cash producer and Columbia executive Don Law asked the group if it wanted to record something. Grant says, "So Don pushed the button and we recorded 'Flowers on the Wall,' just the Statlers and [Cash's group] the Tennessee Three, and that was the start of it."
A 1965 country smash that crossed to No. 4 on the pop charts, "Flowers on the Wall," which would receive renewed life in the 1994 movie "Pulp Fiction" and in Eric Heatherly's 2000 cover, launched the Statlers' long hitmaking run, first with Columbia and then with Mercury.
"We were blessed," Reid says. "When we started off we thought we'd have maybe five good years in this business, so we're thankful for the long career."
Reid attributes the quartet's longevity to its continuous efforts to take care of its fans. "We always gave them the best show we could give, sent out a newsletter to keep them informed, and had a staff of six to answer every piece of fan mail, so we had a nice love affair with our fans," he says. "They, in turn, took care of us. People sometimes get successful and take their fans for granted and think they'll be in love with you forever, but we weren't like that. You have to look after your relationships with people on a daily basis."
But Reid recognizes that the Statlers' singular musical representation of middle-American culture and values also affected the group's endurance. "We talked about small-town life and memories and good American stories that everybody could relate to, from 9 to 90," Reid says, pointing to the group's slice-of-grown-up-life 1972 hit "Class of '57" as an example.
Reid quotes his favorite novelist, John O'Hara: "He said that his life's work was to chronicle the first half of the [20th] century. Maybe what we've done is chronicle the last half."
Key to doing so, Reid adds, was writing original material and having full record-company support. Having recorded albums ranging from country to gospel to Christmas and even comedy (the 1974 classic "Alive at the Johnny Mack Brown High School" album featuring alter egos Lester "Roadhog" Moran and the Cadillac Cowboys), he notes, "They always afforded us the freedom to do what we wanted."
But even when the Statler Brothers' hit singles tapered off in the early '90s, the Statler Brothers Show on TNN recharged their career. "We'd turned down TV for years, figuring we were selling records and didn't want to burn ourselves out," Reid says. "But when we reached the point where we weren't radio active -- as all acts do -- then came TNN, and we were the No. 1 show on the network for seven years, and we started getting a whole different audience than the record audience."
But Reid emphasizes that the Statlers still made albums throughout the decade -- and will continue to do so now. They have a new gospel album, "Amen," out on the Crossroads label and will release a CD and video of their final concert next year on Nashville's Scream Records.
"Already people are talking to us about doing another country album and Christmas album," Reid says, "but we're ruling out any live engagements."
Meanwhile, Reid's son Langdon and Harold's son Wil have formed a contemporary country group called Grandstaff, which is also doing an album for Scream. Reid says, "We're stopping, and they're starting."
Excerpted from the Dec. 7, 2002, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Billboard.com members section.
For information on ordering a copy of the issue, click here.