25 Years Ago: Pioneering Black Country Artist Stoney Edwards Dies

photo: Nelson Tharp

Here 25 years after the death of country star Stoney Edwards, we live in a strange time in country music, where some journalists and activists who purport to be for inclusion in country music regularly engage in the erasure of some of its most diverse artists, pioneers, and contributors, sometimes downplaying their success, or sometimes outright striking their contributions so as to portray country music as more exclusive than it actually is, or was.

Certainly country music has a shady past when it comes to race, as Stoney Edwards could personally attest. But there’s also no good reason to not celebrate the importance and success of an artist like Stoney Edwards who was a pioneer in breaking down the stereotype that all country music is Caucasian, while also overcoming incredible odds and adversity that had him well behind the eight ball beyond any racial component.

No, Stoney Edwards did not have the same success as Charley Pride, but few others did. Yet how his career both commenced and ended turns what we think about race and country music on its head. While revisionist historians love to say that country music only ever had room for one black country star, the singing career of Stoney Edwards was very much tied to Charley Pride’s success, and labels searching for other Black stars to champion. Where today if a white country artist happens to be caught using the N-word, it would result in a massive backlash and attempted cancellation, Stoney’s career actually was ended at least in part due to his use of that epithet.

Though the Cliff Notes version of the Stoney Edwards story portrays him as country music’s other Black star of the 70’s, his heritage was even more complex than that. Though his dad Rescue “Bub” Edwards was Black, he also had Irish in his blood. Stoney’s mother Ollie “Red” Edwards was Native American. Born on Christmas Eve 1929 in Seminole County, Oklahoma, Stoney once told historian Peter Guralnick, “I was never really accepted by any race. 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.”

It didn’t get any easier for Stoney from there. With six other sibling to fight with come meal time, given the proper name “Frenchy” after a bootlegger who happened to stop by on the day he was born, and never taught how to read early on, Stoney fell into a life of bootlegging and operating illegal liquor stills across Oklahoma with his uncles by the time he was a teenager.

Though it was a disjointed upbringing, music did play a role. Stoney’s mother had worked as a music teacher, and early on he was exposed to the music of Bob Wills, which very directly influenced Stoney’s future career. But too poor to afford any instruments themselves, at one point a young Stoney Edwards strung a wire across a bucket to make a de facto guitar, and started writing his own songs.

After his mom died in 1950 and with Federal liquor agents hunting him down, Stoney decided to move out to California for a fresh start, settling out in the suburbs of Oakland, and working all manner of blue collar jobs, from a car wash attendant, to a construction worker, to a forklift operator. He married his first wife Rosemary in 1954, and hearing him sing, she was the one who convinced him that he should pursue music seriously.

While still working day shifts, Stoney started singing in the bars and honky tonks of central and Northern California at night. His name got changed from “Frency” to “Stoney” when some drunk patron hollered out, “I’m stoned, and he probably is, too!” The nickname stuck, and so did Stoney with trying to keep a moonlighting career in music going until it all almost ended in 1968.

In a harrowing accident, while working as forklift operator on an industrial site, Stoney Edwards was accidentally sealed in an air tight tank. By the time he was extracted, Stoney had suffered severe carbon dioxide blood poisoning. He spent the next two years going in and out of a coma, and at one point was diagnosed as terminal. Even as his body slowly recovered, Stoney continued to suffer mental health issues, often being disoriented and falling into psychotic bouts.

Though Stoney could have most certainly claimed Social Security disability after the accident, he refused, and instead—unable to work general labor jobs anymore—decided to pour himself into music. But since this wasn’t paying the bills, he made the tough decision to leave his family so there would be one less mouth to feed, and they could declare welfare. As the story goes, while sneaking out of the house, he accidentally stepped on a toy from his daughter Janice. That became the inspiration for Stoney’s first single, “A Two Dollar Toy.”

Even as Stoney Edwards was struggling to support himself and his family, he still took time to engage in charity himself, and this is what ultimately led to his country music career. Hearing that his hero Bob Wills was ailing, Stoney Edwards organized a benefit for him in 1970. At that benefit, he got the attention of a lawyer named Ray Sweeney who happened to have connections at Capitol Records in Los Angeles, who happened to be looking for their own Black country star in the wake of the overwhelming success of Charley Pride. Stoney Edwards was then paired with the Bob Wills-inspired Asleep At The Wheel and Ray Benson as his backing band, who were more than happy to work with Stoney.

It’s important to not understate, or overstate the success Stoney Edwards had in country music. It’s also important to understand that his career didn’t commence until he was 41, and Stoney had suffered serious health setbacks due to the industrial accident. He wasn’t the polished star with the boyish face like Charley Pride. His career was also relatively short lived due to a host of reasons, including Stoney’s continued health woes.

But Stoney Edwards did release six albums on Capitol Records, and also had a couple of Top 20 hits, including “She’s My Rock” in 1972, which was later covered by George Jones who had a big hit with it. The Possum was a believer in Stoney, and once invited him on stage to sing the song. While Stoney was singing, Jones walked off the stage entirely, seceding the spotlight to Stoney who performed multiple songs (likely while Jones was getting sauced).

Stoney Edwards also had a Top 20 hit with “Mississippi You’re On My Mind” in 1975, and a Top 40 hit with the song “Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul,” which went on to be sung by Moe Bandy, Emmylou Harris, and others.

But Stoney’s tribute to Hank and Lefty went on to create controversy in his career, at least according to one side of the story. Though there are differing accounts of the incident, one says that when Stoney Edwards had the opportunity to meet Lefty Frizzell after the song’s release, Lefty met Stoney with the N-word. Another version of the story veers in a completely different direction, saying Lefty was brought to tears by the tribute, “…for he had thought he had been forgotten, and to him, the irony was that a ‘black man was the one who remembered him.'”

Whether it was the experience with Lefty Frizzell, or the time Stoney Edwards was turned away from attending a party at the Capitol Records offices in Los Angeles because he was Black, the title track to Stoney’s sixth and final record on Capitol from 1976 was called “Blackbird (Hold Your Head Up High)” inspired by his experiences with race in America. It ended up being Stoney’s swan song. Though the message was positive and uplifting, the line, “just a couple of country nigg***” stirred significant controversy, and had some radio stations banning the song.

Whether from the controversy, or just the general lack of commercial success, the Blackbird album was the final act for Stoney Edwards on Capitol, though he released a couple of albums afterwards, including No Way To Drown A Memory in 1981 for Jack Clement’s JMI label, and continued to perform. But after moving back to Oklahoma with his second wife June and three children, another accident sidelined Stoney once again. During a quick draw contest, Stoney shot himself in the leg, and the leg ultimately needed to be amputated. Stoney later suffered from diabetes and lung Cancer, making it difficult for him to perform at all.

Stoney Edwards died on April 5th, 1997—25 years ago today, officially from stomach Cancer.

Perhaps the most tragic thing about the career of Stoney Edwards that that unless you’re fortunate enough to own one of his records, little if any of Stoney’s music is available. On Spotify, there’s all of two songs, one being Stoney’s signature hit, “She’s My Rock” on an obscure compilation.

So maybe it’s not so strange that otherwise well-meaning revisionist historians overlook or undervalue Stoney’s contributions. No, he did not have a string of #1 hits, and maybe he was never meant to. Artists like Marty Stuart and Kris Kristofferson also struggled with radio, and still made it into the Country Music Hall of Fame. So will Ray Charles who will be officially inducted in May.

Stoney’s career may have not been Hall of Fame worthy, but releasing six albums on a major country music label, and scoring Top 20 hits dispels the idea that the contributions of black artists in country music was resigned to just one individual. And perhaps Stoney could have been more successful if he was discovered before he was in his 40s, and not suffered so many health issues.

Either way, Stoney Edwards, his music, and his importance in country music should not be overlooked. His music should also be repopulated here in the digital age so that future generations can enjoy this pioneering country artist. And the legacy of Stoney Edwards should never go unmentioned when talking about important Black contributors to country music.

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