Former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson may have hailed from Staunton, Va. (pop. 23,853), but The Statler Brothers really put the town on the map.
The famed country quartet retired from touring in 2002, but its anchoring brother team Harold and Don Reid relive the group’s career—and pay tribute to Staunton (pronounced “STANton”)—in their new book, The Statler Brothers: Random Memories.
The Reids were encouraged to put their memories in a book by both family and fans. “Our sons—I have two sons and Harold has one—nudged us more than anybody to write it,” explains lead singer Don, 62, sitting in the group’s office in Staunton. “All of their lives, they’ve heard us sit around and tell stories, and they said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to share these.’”
Since Harold and Don wrote the bulk of the quartet’s musical repertoire, Don’s favorite part of the book is a section that explains the stories behind the songs. Harold, 68, prefers the star stories, including those about the moments they spent with their cowboy hero Gene Autry and film legend Mae West.
Of course, the book features a myriad of stories about Johnny Cash, with whom the Statlers toured as part of his show from 1963 to 1971.
“John came to Staunton to visit us just a year or so after we’d gone to work for him,” Harold recalls. “He decided to bake biscuits, because he loved to make biscuits from scratch. And he went in our kitchen, and all the ingredients were there. And when he left, all the ingredients were still there—on the ceiling, on the walls, and on the furniture. I don’t remember if we had biscuits, but I know that it took my wife, Brenda, about three days to clean up the kitchen.”
For four decades, the Statlers provided a mixture of gospel songs, country music and comedy that proved immensely popular with fans. “We tried to give them something new each year, whether it was records, or concerts or television, and we treated the fans as friends,” Don says. Adds Harold: “We always let the people in on the joke. Rather than go out and get a laugh, we always tried to go out and give a laugh.” These days, Don continues to write (he has a Christmas novel coming out next year), while Harold—always ready with a quip—insists he does as little as possible. Baritone Phil Balsley, 68, oversees the Statlers’ business concerns, and tenor Jimmy Fortune, 52, a Williamsburg, Va., native who now lives in Nashville, Tenn., continues to perform and plans to open a recording studio in nearby Harrisonburg, Va. The group’s original tenor, Lew DeWitt, died of heart and kidney disease in 1990.
The three Staunton-based Statlers are familiar figures around town, where they staged a free Fourth of July concert, dubbed “Happy Birthday U.S.A.,” every year for 25 years, often attended by many as 100,000 fans, who provided a walloping boost to the local economy.
“Staunton would be a lot worse off by the boys’ not being here,” says their friend Ray Houser, a radio personality who helped them land a Roanoke-based TV show in the early 1960s. Adds Mayor Lacy King, “They’ve just been wonderful ambassadors for Staunton, and a lot of their songs reflect the history of the town.”
Even at the height of their fame, the Reids say they never entertained the idea of moving their headquarters to New York or Los Angeles—or anywhere, for that matter, outside their hometown.
“Staunton is where we were centered and feel the most comfortable,” Don says. “We still appreciate it after all these years.”