Roni Stoneman – Pressing On

This post is a contribution from Richard Thompson, a semi-regular contributor here at Bluegrass Today. He is also a longstanding contributor to British Bluegrass News, a quarterly print publication where he also briefly served as editor.

The University Of Illinois Press has announced the forthcoming publication of Pressing On, The Roni Stoneman Story as told to Ellen Wright.

The book, scheduled for publication in May, recounts the fascinating life of Roni Stoneman, the youngest daughter of the pioneering country music family, and a girl who, in spite of poverty and abusive husbands, eventually became “The First Lady of Banjo,” a fixture on the Nashville scene, and, as Hee Haw’s Ironing Board Lady, a comedienne beloved by millions of Americans nationwide.

Ellen Wright shares a few comments about the work involved in writing the book and tells of some of the fun moments that took place in the process.

“As co-author of Pressing On, I was very lucky in that Roni has led a fascinating life, has terrific recall of wonderful details, and is a gifted and very very funny storyteller. We taped more than 75 hours of recollections, which I then formed into a narrative. The book is told in Roni’s voice, in Roni’s words. There are chapters describing her family’s early musical history, how Scott learned the fiddle (‘Just listen to that mockingbird,’ said his grandfather at one point), how Scott taught Roni and Donna their instruments (‘Don’t play like a girl!’), and their first experience at the Grand Ole Opry (they were told not to play ‘too good, just play normal,’ advice to which Scott had a predictably violent reaction). There are also chapters describing Roni’s stint on Hee Haw (how she got the job is a particularly moving story), Roni’s adventures with famous country music stars (shopping with Loretta Lynn, traveling with Faron Young), and Roni’s personal life, her five very different husbands and her numerous dating experiences. The stories connected with the men in Roni’s life were to me as interesting as the stories connected with the music. The marriages were both sociologically and psychologically extremely revealing.

During the writing of the book, there were many amazing moments. At one point we unearthed some old wax cylinders that Roni’s father had recorded in the twenties. The lettering on one was hard to make out, and we were both puzzling over it, and then we both screamed in unison, Bury Me Beneath the Willow! And then there was the day we had been taping for about five hours, and it was clearly time for lunch, or, as I very sensibly said, ‘relaxation, without a tape recorder on.’ Big mistake. There we sat munching salads and Roni started telling me about her rather recent date with a ‘classy’ surgeon who knew nothing of her past history, and tried to convince ‘Veronica,’ in her elegant black dress, that after dinner they should go hear some country music. She demurred. She knew she would be recognized and didn’t want to lose her cover. But he was insistent, assuring her that country music was okay ‘once you get used to it.’ She finally agreed to go, with disastrous but hysterically funny results. I was almost literally rolling on the floor with laughter. (I got Roni to retell the story — this time with the tape recorder on! So much for being sensible.)

I just hope that others have as much fun reading the book as Roni and I had working on it.”

From what I have learned so far about this book, there can be little doubt that it will be a very enjoyable book to read.

The book, a volume in the series Music in American Life, is in hardback and soft-back formats and can be purchased direct from the University Of Illinois Press.

In 2005, Ellen Wright was named the Charles Deering McCormick University Distinguished Lecturer at Northwestern University, where she teaches in the Writing Program.

Footnote: Ellen’s husband, John Wright, wrote Traveling The Highway Home, a story about the life of Ralph Stanley. This is also published by The University Of Illinois Press.

Editor’s note: The UIP site shows this book as released in April 2006, yet it also shows up on their Spring 2007 new releases page.