Roni Stoneman, ‘First Lady of the Banjo’ and ‘Hee Haw’ Cast Member, Dies at 85

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Roni Stoneman, a country musician who was known as “first lady of the banjo,” and was seen by millions as a familiar face on television’s “Hee Haw,” has died. She was 85. No cause of death was given.

“For Roni Stoneman, known as ‘The First Lady of the Banjo,’ country music was a birthright and her life’s work,” said Kyle Young, the CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “The second youngest of 23 children born to Hattie and Ernest ‘Pop’ Stoneman, Roni was an integral part of a bedrock country music family, who were longtime fixtures in the country music scene of Washington, D.C. For 18 years on ‘Hee Haw,’ she stole scenes as both a skillful banjo player and as a comical, gap-toothed country character. She was a great talent and a strong woman.”

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On “Hee Haw,” Stoneman played “the Ironing Board Lady,” Ida Lee Nagger, who would appear during one of the series’ signature blackout bits, the song “Pfft You Were Gone!”

Stoneman published an “as told to” autobiography, “Pressing On: The Roni Stoneman Story,” in 2007 through the University of Illinois Press. The published described her as “the youngest daughter of the pioneering country music family and a woman who overcame poverty and abusive husbands” to become a master musician and “a comedienne beloved by millions.” In it she wrote about “her ‘pooristic’ (‘way beyond ‘poverty-stricken’) Appalachian childhood, and how her brother Scott taught her to play the challenging and innovative three-finger banjo picking style developed by Earl Scruggs.” The memoir also included “her encounters as a musician with country greats like Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, June Carter, and Patsy Cline; as well as her personal struggles with shiftless and violent husbands” and “her musical life after ‘Hee Haw.‘”

A clip of the family band playing “Goin’ Up Cripple Creek,” below, shows the unit doing a sort of fake-out, initially playing the song at a deceptively slow clip before breaking out into a lightning pace that showed off Roni’s fleet fingers.

Stoneman was one of 23 children born to seminal bluegrass musician Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman, whose career began in the 1920s, and Hattie Stoneman. She was part of the family band, the Stoneman Family, which was discovered by a wider public on Arthur Godfrey’s 1950s “Talent Scout” program and eventually had its own syndicated TV series. The family band won a CMA Award for vocal group of the year in 1967. She left the group in 1971, shortly before joining “Hee Haw.”

In an interview with Banjo News, Stoneman described literally gluing picks onto her fingers to keep up her playing prowess, as a last resort, when arthritis kept her from being able to use standard picks.

While cleaning the house one day, she was focused on how picks “kept falling off, they didn’t go up high enough on my fingers. And I said, ‘God, tell me what to do.’ But then I just wiped it out of my mind and kept on cleaning. And then I went into the bedroom and I said, ‘Krazy Glue… on those fingers! That’s a good idea.’ So I started using Krazy Glue and it worked.”

Describing a later experience after her book came out, Stoneman said, “I was fixing my hair and everything, and then I thought I’d better put my picks on because I’d be going on pretty soon. Well, I got glued, stuck together. My fingers were glued together. I couldn’t get them apart! … I finally got them apart. And I went, ‘Oh, Thank you, Lord.’ But when you get that stuff on your fingers… I don’t have any fingerprints anymore on those two fingers, because I’ve done pulled the skin off. And sometimes when it’s hot outside, I’ll be playing in a park somewhere, you know, some bluegrass park, I have to glue my thumb pick on too, because it slips around. And you just don’t know how many people come up, and say, ‘You gluing your picks on?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, yes, I glue ‘em on.’ … I had to, you know, because I can’t be playing with the tips of my fingers.”

Roni Stoneman and her mandolin-playing sister, Donna Stoneman, continued to tour and make recordings in recen tyears.

A Facebook post from Jan. 29 shows her continuing to play at the time, saying, “Roni Stoneman chose a great bunch local pickers to jam with” in Chattanooga.

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