Remembering “First Lady of the Banjo” Roni Stoneman (RIP)

It can be a big challenge to distinguish yourself from the crowd when you’re one of 23 children. But that’s exactly what Roni Stoneman did through her illustrious career as a banjo maestro, singer, actor, and comedian. It might be humor that Stoneman is most remembered for—namely her folksy character Ida Lee Nagger on the long-running variety show Hee-Haw. But her skills with the banjo were serious and vaunted, as was the family history that she proudly carried forward.

“They were passing through Washington, going to a picking job. And Mama said, ‘Hark, I feel a pain.’ And that was me!” Roni Stoneman once recalled about her birth on May 5th, 1938 during the throes of The Depression. Veronica Loretta Stoneman was No. 23, and the youngest of the litter from fiddle player Haddie Stoneman, and Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman who’s considered one of the fathers of country music.

They peg the “Big Bang of Country Music” to 1927 and the Bristol Sessions in TN/VA. But in 1924, Ernest “Pop” Stoneman had a hit with “The Sinking of the Titanic.” He was set to become one of the first country music stars, but then the Great Depression hit, and Pop already had over a dozen mouths to feed. It wasn’t until 32 years later in 1956 and a random appearance on a quiz show that Pop’s music career was rekindled. A year later, Roni Stoneman would join the family band comprised of mom, pop, and numerous siblings.

Shortly after Roni joined on banjo, the family would win a contest on the televised Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts show, and quickly became regulars on TV shows of the era. 1962 saw their debut on the Grand Ole Opry, and soon The Stonemans became known as one of the most important family bands in country music. They officially moved from Washington D.C. to Nashville in 1966, even hosted their own series called Those Stonemans between 1966 and 1968. They also won the CMA’s Vocal Group of the Year award in 1967.

It was sweet justice to see Ernest “Pop” Stoneman recognized and find success before he passed away in 1968, which also ended the television show. The family band continued on, but highly regarded as a banjo player, Roni Stoneman was able to launch a solo career. This is how she first found her way onto the cast of Hee-Haw in 1973, right beside the banjomasters of the time such as Roy Clark and Grandpa Jones. As a woman in a man’s world at the time, it made Roni’s musicianship seem unique, earning her the moniker “The First Lady of the Banjo.”

Stoneman played a Gibson RB-250 Bow Tie banjo, and had her own technique that combined strong Scruggs-like fingerpicking with occasional frailing to emphasize certain phrases. Even when performing traditional country and bluegrass tunes, she always brought an element of humor to her performances.

Though her banjo skills would be highlighted on Hee-Haw for 18 years, it really was Roni’s hilarious character study into the nagging housewife and desperate spinster that put her on the map for many. Ida Lee Nagger with her gap teeth and ribbon tied in her hair became a fixture and favorite in the Hee-Haw cast opposite husband Lavern played by Gordie Tapp. Stoneman even would appear in other segments as Ida Lee not directly affiliated with the character.

Roni Stoneman wasn’t just the First Lady of the Banjo, she was also one of the last surviving members of the Stoneman legacy in country music. Autoharpist and older sister Patsy Stoneman passed away in 2015, leaving only Roni and her older sister and mandolin player Donna left. The two continued to perform up until 2020.

Roni Stoneman passed away on February 22nd, 2024. She was 85 years old.

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