No other country act can say they beat out the Supremes, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, Herman’s Hermits and the Beatles to win their first Grammy Award, but that’s just one of the juicy tidbits fans will learn in The Music of the Statler Brothers: An Anthology, a 448-page epic penned by Statler lead singer Don Reid that chronicles the history of the beloved country legends and every song in their extensive repertoire.
“We were in the country category, of course, but we were also in that rock category. We were the dark horse and I’m sure we were a surprise to a lot of people and also ourselves,” Reid tells Sounds Like Nashville of the group winning the 1966 Grammy for Contemporary Rock & Roll Group Vocal Performance for their breakthrough hit “Flowers on the Wall.” “We had no idea that we even had a chance, but it was a big record then. So that’s where we got our first Grammy, in the rock field of all places.”
In the years that followed the foursome from Staunton, VA would be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and as well as the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and earn just about every award imaginable until they retired in 2002. Reid, his brother Harold (who passed away in April), Phil Balsey and Lew DeWitt formed the group in 1955 and the new book spotlights their early days including how their career gained momentum when Johnny Cash discovered the group and hired them to tour with him.
Reid also reminisces on Jimmy Fortune joining the Statlers when DeWitt had to leave due to health issues. “Jimmy came in at a very difficult time for everybody, for us and for the fans, but he came in so open hearted and he just won everybody over,” Reid recalls. “The fans loved him immediately from that first night, and on for the next 20 years. He made a place for himself and we just fell in love with him, with his talent, with his voice, his writing and his heart.”
Published by Mercer University Press, The Music of the Statler Brothers: An Anthology features an extremely detailed description of every song the group recorded, including why they wrote it (or chose it if it was an outside cut), the musicians who played on it, how it fared on the charts and its significance in their extensive repertoire. It’s a true gift for Statler fans.
“I just like to keep records,” Reid says in a phone call from his Virginia home. “I kept a track of all of our road shows, every concert, all the clothes we wore, the towns we were in, everything. I’ve just always kept all those kinds of records. I don’t know why. For some reason, it was meant to be and I was able to use it down through the years.”
Reid says he’d like to see other artists to do the same. “I say towards the end of the book that I’d like to make this a challenge to other artists to do the same thing because there are so many people that are gone now that I wished had taken this approach for their fans and their legacy,” Reid says. “What if Johnny Cash had done this and written about his music and where the songs come from? I think John is one of the greatest country writers there ever was. What if Glen Campbell had done it? What if Tammy [Wynette] had written about why she had liked this song? I just challenge other acts that have had a career behind them to do that because I think it would be fulfilling for them and fulfilling for their fans. People like stories.”
Reid shares a lot of great stories in the new book, including the time they met Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor and wound up signing autographs with her for the fans that gathered outside. Somewhere there are fans with all four of the Statler signatures alongside Taylor’s. Now that’s a collectible.
He also talks about how an old green hat became a good luck charm for the group. “We went over to Mercury to record in 1970 and on our first session I wore this old green hat,” he recalls. “Then ‘Bed of Roses,’ the first record we cut over there, was a major hit and I jokingly said, ‘I’m going to bring that hat to every session,’ and I either brought it or wore it to every session. [Producer] Jerry Kennedy would come in and say, ‘Alright, where’s the hat before we get started?’ It would always be hanging on a microphone or be laying on a chair or somewhere, but it was always in the room with us. I’m not really a superstitious person but I thought what the heck? I don’t walk under a ladder just to see what’s going to happen, so I decided I’d better bring my hat. It stayed with us for a long time.”
The book not only examines the Statlers music, but also the comedy that was such a big part of their entertainment legacy. The Statlers also performed as Lester “Roadhog” Moran & The Cadillac Cowboys. “Comedy was very much a part of what we did, probably more so than other acts and that’s all because of Harold,” Reid says of his brother, who originated the hilarious Roadhog character. “Harold was such a natural comedian, so he brought comedy to our concerts and we used it a lot. He brought of course comedy on the records and on the TV show that we did for seven years. We had an element there that most other acts don’t necessary have built in to their structure. It certainly played well for us. So we had the music. We had the comedy and we had the songwriting and we were just blessed in so many ways.”
Writing the book provided Reid an opportunity to relive the group’s most treasured moments. “This is going to sound terrible, but I think I was never able to enjoy us until I looked back on it,” he admits. “Through all of those 40 years we were always working. We would finish an album and while the public was enjoying that, we were already working on the next album and fitting in television, concerts and all that sort of thing. It wasn’t until years after we retired—we retired in ’02, so it’s been a while now—it wasn’t until then I was able to look back and say, ‘You know, I think we did a pretty good job.’ I kind of enjoyed the music more more now than I did at the time. I was too close to it. I was too deep into it at the time. I do see myself as a different person looking back on those years.”
In addition to sharing all the glorious details of their record career, Reid just has a knack for great storytelling, and fans will revel in all the behind the scenes anecdotes. “It isn’t like writing a three-minute song,” says Reid, who shared the project with his late brother Harold to get his feedback before his passing. “I spent about two years putting all this together and it does take a commitment to sit down and take on a project.”
The Music of the Statler Brothers: An Anthology isn’t Reid’s first turn as an author. “This is my ninth book since we retired,” he says. “The first book I wrote was of a religious nature called Heroes and Outlaws of the Bible, and then I wrote Sunday Morning Memories. That was memories of me growing up as a kid and memories of going to church and all the different things we did. That’s probably my favorite book. My sons and I—Langdon and Debo—wrote a Christmas book together called You Know It’s Christmas When, and then brother Harold and I wrote Random Memories, and that was just memories of being on the road, being the Statlers. It wasn’t necessarily a total biography. It was just random memories of things we put together and it was fun to write it with him. Then the next three books were novels. I’d always wanted to write a novel. I wrote O Little Town, One Lane Bridge and The Mulligans of Mt. Jefferson. That was fun to do.”
Obviously Reid has been busy since retirement. When asked what prompted the group to hang it up in 2002, Reid relates, “We just felt like we had done everything we could do and we just wanted some rest. Getting off the road was the main thing. That’s a young man’s game, so we thought this was the time to go and as Harold once said, ‘I want to be sure to leave before there’s more people on the stage than there are in the audience.’ We left at a prime time because we were still having full houses.”
Reid enjoys spending time with his grandkids and says he hasn’t missed life on the road. “I’ve never missed the stage because every night you always had to worry about ‘Am I going to be in good voice? Am I up for this?’ It’s straining so I didn’t miss that. I miss the recording because I love the recording part of it, going into the studio and creating. We considered doing albums, a couple albums after, but we never decided to do it. We talked about it, but that was as far as we got.”
Unlike current times when an artist generally releases an album every two to three years, back in the Statlers heyday, they would sometimes release three albums in one year. “We were able to do that because we had a lot of album sales and they wanted to keep those things coming,” he says. “We enjoyed doing it and it worked out for us, but now it’s an album every two or three years.”
Reid has poured a lot of love and effort into The Music of the Statler Brothers: An Anthology and he’s looking forward to fans getting the book. “I hope the fans and the people enjoy it,” Reid says. “I like family stories, sitting around with my aunts and uncles and hearing family stories. When you share stories, people live on.”