The Statlers Have Me for Lunch

The Statler Brothers have really been looking forward to our interview. They tell me so the
moment I sit down with them. Then, as appositives like “legendary journalist” go dancing through my head, Brother Harold Reid leans over and explains that once the interview is finished they can all go to lunch. That pretty much sets the tone of our discourse. Getting a
straight answer from the Statlers is like getting a throat culture from a hummingbird — you’ve just got to keep at it.

On this particular rainy morning, the Statlers are in Nashville to promote their latest album, Showtime. It was released Tuesday (April 10) on their own label, Music Box Records. All four members — brothers Harold and Don Reid, Phil Balsley and Jimmy Fortune — are at the table, although the Reids do most of the talking. Showtime is their first completely new collection of songs since the 1995 sold-on-TV album, The Statler Brothers Sing the Classics. “That’s why we did this one,” Don says. “Our fans had let us know that it had been a lot of years.” “It Should Have Been Me” is the debut single.

Last year, Platinum Records, an independent label, announced it had signed the Statlers, so I ask them if they had originally
recorded Showtime for that company. “You want the truth?” Don asks, and when I suggest it would be nice, Fortune gasps, “Uh oh!
The truth? This changes everything.” “It certainly does,” grumbles Harold. “We need a meeting.” Don waits amiably for the babbling
to subside, then continues. “Platinum talked to us one time, and we said we’ll get back to you. The next thing we know, they’ve got a
news release that said we’d signed to them. We never did.” The album, he stresses, is strictly their own creation.

The quartet again turned to Jerry Kennedy to produce the album. “We haven’t been in the studio with anybody but Jerry since 1970,”
Don says firmly. With only one exception — a tune by Gordon Kennedy (Jerry’s son) and Steve Wariner — the 12 songs that make up
Showtime were written by various members of the Statlers or Harold’s and Don’s children. Thematically, the album leans toward love
songs, but it also includes two gospel cuts.

“Steve Popovich told me … ” I begin, but before I can frame my next question, Harold leaps to his feet and salutes this mention of his
former label chief at Mercury Records. “Have you ever seen him with a little short pair of silk pants on?” Don inquires. “I’m afraid so,”
I reply. “’I’m afraid so’ was the right answer!” Harold booms, growing more animated as his memory of the colorful Popovich kicks into gear. “He showed up at the fair at Columbus [Ohio] one time and spent the day with us. He had those little pants on, and half the
people at the fair left.”

“Anyway,” I push on, “Steve told me that the Statlers basically kept Mercury afloat during the lean years of the 1980s. So why did
you leave the label?”

“Mercury forgot who kept them afloat,” Harold zings. Then, placing his forefingers below his basset hound eyes, he adds, “You look
at my face and you look at Shania Twain’s and tell me what happened.”

“They kept wanting to do albums,” Don says, “but they wanted reissues and re-compilations. We have a great catalog there. But when it came down to doing new albums and new material, they weren’t quite sure how they wanted to market it.”

“There were too many things that we wanted to do, that we didn’t feel like we’d finished yet,” Fortune says. “We didn’t want to go back and do what we’d already done.”

The Statler Brothers formed in the early 1960s, when male vocal groups such as the Four Lads and the Ames Brothers were pop music favorites. While they say they admired these acts, the Statlers maintain their aspirations were never toward pop. “We appreciated all those folks, the Ames Brothers especially,” says Don. “But we were always a gospel quartet singing country music,” Harold asserts, “or that’s the way we thought of ourselves.” Even so, the first record they ever charted, “Flowers on theWall, in 1965, went to No. 4 pop (and No. 2 country). In 2000, Eric Heatherly had a No. 6 country hit with the song.

From the start, the element that set the Statlers most apart from their country peers was the content of their lyrics. These guys didn’t
sing about coal mines, cotton fields and making ends meet. Rather, they celebrated small town life, high school proms, western movies and other enthusiasms of the middle class. “We were accepted as a country act,” Don says, “but we had sort of our own subject matter, and we used gospel harmonies — which made it different. Different sometimes works.”

“If you’re different, you don’t have to be real good,” Harold intones wisely. “We think in all those years we brought a lower class to
country music.”

“I had a creative writing teacher in school,” Don continues, “who used to say, ’Write about what you know. I don’t want anybody
coming in here and writing me a short story about the streets of Paris because none of you have been there.’ So I think that’s what
we did. We wrote about what we knew — growing up in a small town and all the heartaches and the up-and-downs with high school

“And we all grew up together,” says Harold. “And, of course, we spent a lot of times riding around in cars before we got on the road —
and even after. You start reminiscing about things you did. We’d sit there talking about Roy Rogers or Gene Autry or the senior prom. When you sit down to write a song, all these things creep in. Then, like most things, goodness you can plan but greatness happens. If it’s worth anything, it just sort of happens on its own.”

Throughout their career, the Statler Brothers have remained in their hometown of Staunton (pronounced STAN-tun), Va. Such separation is not a big deal today, given the ubiquity of e-mail and fax machines, but it was quite a risk in the technology-spare ’60s. “It wasn’t that we thought [living in] Nashville wouldn’t work for us,” Harold explains. “We just didn’t want to leave home. We had offers from New York, Los Angeles and Nashville. All three factions in those towns told us, ’If you don’t live in this city and you want to be in the music business, then you’re dead ducks.’ We were just too stupid and too green to know the difference. We said, ’No, we’re going to live at home in Virginia.'”

Don says it was only the fax machine that enabled them to still live away from Nashville during the ’90s when they had their variety show on TNN. “If it hadn’t been for the fax machine,” he recalls, “we could never have done the TV series. Marshall [Grant], our manager, was in Mississippi booking talent. Harold and I were in Staunton, Va., writing the shows. And our office staff was in Nashville typing up the scripts and getting the production all ready. If it hadn’t been for the fax machine, we couldn’t have done that show.” “Well, we
could,” Harold observes, “but we’d have worn a Pony Express rider out.”

Despite The Statler Brothers Show being TNN’s highest-rated series, it was cancelled in 1999 after seven seasons for failing to attract younger viewers. “We had our choice,” says Don, “we could stay [but we would have had] to turn Phil into a wrestler.” “I could have roller-derbied,” Harold muses. “I was going to drive a NASCAR,” says Fortune.

“The ratings were great,” Don notes. “The ratings were always up. But that wasn’t important to them. It was an 18 to 35 [age range] they were looking for. It was a little bit of a shock, to be honest. We weren’t expecting it. … Oh, every once in a while you’d hear from
an executive that we ought to have So-and-So on the show, and we’d say, ’OK. That’s fine with us.'” “But,” Harold interrupts, “by the
time we got the guest, the executive was gone.”

The Statlers’ 2001 tour will take them to auditoriums and civic centers in approximately 80 cities. They are legendary for the rising
talents they have nourished as their opening acts. Among these were Barbara Mandrell, Reba McEntire, Tammy Wynette, Brenda Lee, Ricky Skaggs, Suzy Bogguss, the Judds and Garth Brooks. Tara Lynn is their current opener.

Although they’re less than vitriolic about it, the Statlers admit they have some qualms about today’s country music. “Not to embarrass anyone,” Don ventures, “because there’s great talent, but you’ve got cookie-cutter images out there. There’s just no more Roy Acuffs and Hank Snows and Johnny Cashes, people who’ve got that distinct impact, that distinct originality.” “They’re not even allowed to have a personality,” Harold complains. “They have to look and act and walk and dress the same.” “We don’t want all the guys sounding alike and all the women looking alike,” Don says. “But if they do all look alike,” Harold argues, “they all ought to look like Faith Hill.”

Someone mentions the Oak Ridge Boys, which sends Harold off on another riff. “Did you hear about the trouble one of the Oak Ridge
Boys got into? It’ll be on the news tonight. It was something about a cross-walk or cross dressing, I can’t remember which.”

Lunch anyone?

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to