The Statler Brothers — the first country act to re-direct listeners’ nostalgia from rural to small-town life — will retire from touring at the end of this year. With only one change in personnel, the quartet has been performing and recording together since 1961, first as the Kingsmen, then, beginning in 1964, as the Statler Brothers.
The current members of the act are brothers Harold and Don Reid, Phil Balsley and Jimmy Fortune. Founding member Lew DeWitt, plagued by illness, left the group in 1981 and died in 1990. He wrote the group’s first hit, “Flowers on the Wall,” which went Top 5 on the country and pop charts in 1965. (It was reborn as Eric Heatherly ’s breakthrough single in 2000.)
A brief statement released from the Statlers’ office in Staunton, Va., says the group will conclude their concert schedule Nov. 1, 2002. “The reasons cited for their decision to retire,” the statement continues, “were simply to free themselves of a rigid travel schedule and to spend more time at their Shenandoah Valley homes.”
A spokeswoman for the group says it has not yet been determined where the final Statlers concert will be held. They will release a gospel album this spring.
Mixing Southern gospel vocal harmonies with wry wit and class-clown goofiness, the Statlers became one of the biggest acts in country music — both on records and stage — during the 1970s and ’80s. Writing most of their own songs, the Statlers scrutinized and often glorified the American small-town life of the 1950s, with its high school proms, cowboy movies, cool cars and youthful dreams. These passions were reflected in such hits as “Do You Remember These,” “Class of ’57,” “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott” and “The Movies.”
Their wicked sense of humor also surfaced in their songs. In “How to Be a Country Star,” a Top 10 effort from 1979, they advised aspiring performers to “get a gimmick like Charley Pride ’s got.” Their 1973 album, Alive at the Johnny Mack Brown High School, was a merciless sendup of everything horrid about live country music radio shows. Issued under the name Lester “Roadhog” Moran & The Cadillac Cowboys,” it lampooned bad singing, worse picking, misremembered lyrics and hick sponsors. Only the fact that “Lester” (aka Harold Reid) was such a bumblingly endearing figure saved the project from being outright vicious.
Although their chart vitality was flagging by the late ’80s, the Statlers continued to draw large crowds for their stage shows throughout the ’90s, during which time they created and starred in what was to become the most popular show on TNN (then The Nashville Network). The Statler Brothers Show revived the musical variety format of early television and was a perfect vehicle for the Statlers’ personable versatility.
The Statlers bill themselves as “the most awarded act in the history of country music,” and that is probably true. Their honors include three Grammys, nine CMA vocal group of the year awards and 46 Music City News trophies. They recorded for Mercury Records from 1970 into the 1990s and were for years the label’s bestselling country act.
Last year, the group released their album Showtime on Crossroads Records.