The Brooklyn Almanac: Gimme That Old Time Presbyterian Blues: Don Reid and The Statler Brothers

A bunch of friends helped dream up a supplement to be called THE BROOKLYN ALMANAC, which would catch some effusions on the borough. The first installment appeared in early March and another in June. As the quarantine rages, our horizons shrink and we become obsessed. This is the result.

Part 1

By Joe Fodor

The Music of The Statler Brothers: An Anthology (Music and the American South), by Don Reid, with a foreword by Bill & Gloria Gaither. Mercer University Press, 2020, Hardcover, 423 pgs. $29.00

Why did I buy fifty Statler Brothers cassette tapes on eBay? It was about six months into the quarantine, and our Brooklyn apartment was doing double duty as a high school for our two kids, and as offices for Laura and myself. In order to block the noise, we all listened to music on headphones when we weren’t on zoom calls, and the Statler Brothers country-pop and gospel mix would be good noise-baffling material, and listening to them on cassette wouldn’t take up any of our wi-fi capacity.

And I loved the Statler Brothers. Everyone is familiar with their first hit,  “Flowers on the Wall”, from 1966, with its fake-happy verses switching to a minor-key chorus of depressed interior monologue —  watching flowers on the wall and playing solitaire till dawn with a pack of fifty-one, and that great line “smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo.”  The song was written by Lew DeWitt, the groups tenor singer and guitarist, and it was good enough to win the group their first Grammy and get to #2 on the Billboard Pop charts. Lew Dewitt left the group in 1982 after battling Crohn’s Disease, and was replaced by Jimmy Fortune, a fellow a few years younger than the other Statlers, but with a great singing voice and instrumental chops. That he grew up 40 miles from Staunton, Virginia, home of the Statlers, didn’t hurt. The Statler Brothers made a TV variety series in the 1990s, and then retired in 2002, marking 48 years in the business.

My cassettes arrived in good condition, some still in their cellophane wrappers. Others wore the evidence of their age more obviously, and some had had lost tonal quality, probably from being baked in the sun on a car’s dashboard for years. When you listened to them it was as if Don, Harold, Phil and Lew/Jimmy were singing during an underwater earthquake, or broadcasting from a spaceship that was being dragged into a black hole.  Others were equally old, but played miraculously well. About fifteen were various “greatest Hits” compilations, most made from the group’s first three albums, which Columbia Records repackaged and sold over and over again with new cover art throughout the Statler Brother’s long career. 

The Statlers were a gospel singers originally, and I find the sound the four voices create to be one of the miracles of country music. Harold Reid, the bass singer, founded the group in 1955 as a gospel quartet, with baritone Phil Balsley, tenor Lew Dewitt, and a guy named Joe McDormand, who eventually moves to Florida and breaks up the group. Around 1960 the group reforms with Harold’s younger brother Don taking the lead, and his warm, honey-baked baritone solidified the sound.  When joined together their tone is all-enveloping, from the deepest bass notes of Harold to the impossibly high tenor of Lew or Jimmy. It is often impossible to find Phil’s voice in the mix, but he was the most harmonically gifted of the Statlers, and his voice does a lot of work in giving them that wonderful blend. 

Listening to the cassettes had a magical effect. Barbara Mandrell talks about how once you have been exposed to the Statlers’ music and concerts you become “Statlerized” and are a fan for life. I propose a different definition of Statlerize – it is when you listen to so much Statler Brothers music that their musical style invades your consciousness, and you hear them singing all the time and your thoughts themselves turn into Statler Brothers songs, with mundane mental observations sung in four-part harmony and Harold’s powerful deep voice leading everything off. 

About the same time my fifty cassettes arrived, I got the news that Don Reid had published a book with Mercer University Press, The Music of the Statler Brothers: an Anthology, a song-by-song breakdown of all of the Statler Brothers recordings. Reid was always the most educated and bookish of the Statlers, having had a full semester and several additional weeks of business college before Johnny Cash hired them in March of 1964, and they began their professional career. Don and his brother Harold wrote a book in 2008 entitled Random Memories, which talked about their life on the road and unforgettable personalities they have encountered. As for Johnny Cash, they limited their stories to ones that they had told before and that Cash and June Carter Cash knew that they told, and presumably had no objections to retelling.

Less than a month after signing with Cash they recorded their first single in Nashville, which flopped. Another single also flopped, and that summer the Statlers had one more chance at recording—so they cut “Billy Christian”, an up-tempo song addressed to fellow who abandons his wife and child, and is invited to “come on home, Billy Christian, if you care.”  It was written by a DJ named Thomas Hall (Later Tom T. Hall) who was looking to break into country music. In the time left over they recorded Lew Dewitt’s “Flowers on the Wall,” which was initially written to the tune of Jingle Bells, and was quickly taught to the musicians at the session so that it could be finished and recorded by the time Johnny Cash returned from lunch. 

Had it not been a massive hit, we wouldn’t have the Statler Brothers, but as to why it was a hit, Don Reid can’t really say. For the first few years various producers at Columbia Nashville recording studios tried to get the Statlers to recreate it.  In “An Anthology” Reid goes through every song they cut in those years, even the many songs that were finished and stuck in a vault, never to be heard of again, some of which seem truly awful and that Reid hopes stay buried forever.  They had little control over what they recorded, and that’s how they came to sing “Almost Persuaded,” one of the only drinking songs the Statlers ever sang because “we never did drinking songs because none of us drank.”  

Their first album on Mercury Records, Bed of Rose’s, starts the flood of fantastic music. If the Statler’s were Country Music’s Beatles, it was because they had three strong writers in the group and, more importantly, were assisted in the studio by the greatest musicians of their generation.  All of the Statlers could play instruments (and they were called to fill in on bass, guitar or drums whenever a member of Johnny Cash’s Tennessee Trio was unable to perform), but the crew Jerry Kennedy assembled at Mercury’s Nashville studios could do anything, perfectly and instantly. Whatever complex musical idea Don Reid had could be hummed to the pickers in the studio and get played back flawlessly, and probably with a few extra licks. 

The first big hit for Mercury was a Harold Reid song, “Bed of Rose’s” and told the story of a young man who comes of age thanks to an older woman, in this case, a 35-year-old town prostitute named Rose. On its surface, it doesn’t seem like a Statler Brother’s song, and in An Anthology Reid makes it clear that his brother’s song was not autobiographical, but involved an old friend of theirs from Staunton, Virginia.  

Don Reid doesn’t like some songs in his catalog, perhaps none more than “The Junkie’s Prayer”, a composition by Lew Dewitt originally titled “The Needle” and first recorded by a local Virginia singer named Harry Snyder, and backed up by The Buttermilk Drinkers, a pre-Johnny Cash version of The Statlers. “For my money I wish it wasn’t in our history or discography,” Reid writes, before adding “but I have to say vocally we did a good job on it.”   But “The Junkie’s Prayer” is maybe the most traditional country song that the Statler’s ever did –raw and emotional and real and with nothing ‘politan about it. According to Don Reid, Porter Wagoner loved it. 

We” is the first of the Statler Brother’s autobiographical songs about performing on the road, and there are a lot of them, probably best exemplified by the later “Statler Brother Quiz,” which is an actual quiz, with the answers in the chorus!  If some bands grow to hate the road, The Statlers loved it–the small town chain hotels, the rituals of the road, the audiences, and the coming home.  Harold even enjoyed driving the tour bus. 

A large part of the Statler Brother’s creation story is that they got their name off a box of facial tissues, but few know that the Statler Tissue Company was itself named after the Statler Hotel, in Boston, part of a chain of hotels founded by Ellsworth Milton (E. M.) Statler (1863-1928).  Perhaps, like the four musicians, the owners of the tissue paper mill—none of whom were named Statler–decided on the Statler name because it was printed on some stationery or a free pen.

Statler’s great innovation was on insisting that all the rooms at a Statler Hotel had a bathroom, the result of his invention of the ‘Statler plumbing shaft’ enabling rooms to share hot and cold water pipes. Besides the en-suite bathroom, the other hotel amenities Statler pioneered were the free pen and writing materials provided in each room (emblazoned with the hotel name, of course), and his final innovation in the Statler Hotel in Boston in 1927—a radio  in every room.  

An earlier version of the same type of tissue box that inspired the naming of The Statler Brothers.

Some versions of the  name-creation story have the four singers in a hotel room when they come up with their new name after they discover that their current name, the Kingsmen, was shared by another gospel group. The books by the Reid brothers just say that it took place in “a room,” and that the box of tissues was either on a bureau or a table.  

If the naming of the Statler Brothers took place in a hotel room, as I fervently hope it did, I believe that Phil probably took out the complimentary pen and hotel stationery and wrote out the new name Don had just proposed, and Lew turned on the room radio and Harold went into the bathroom and closed the door, and eventually ran water through the Statler plumbing shaft that joins all hotel rooms together and sending it onward to the sea.

Several weeks into listening to the Statler Brothers as a serious avocation, my thinking had become Statlerized in unexpected directions…

The Statler Hotel in Boston

This is the first part of a two part review.The next installment delves deeper into the Statler Brothers music, and discovers the unacknowledged source of Don Reid’s greatest songs.

Continue reading about the Statler Brothers in part 2 of Give Me That Old Time Presbyterian Blues.