It’s sunny but freezing outside when siblings Harold and Don Reid stride into a plush sixth floor office overlooking downtown Nashville to start their first interview of the morning. Things are going to get busy.
These two deep-voiced linchpins of the fabled Statler Brothers have a lot of talk about these days. First, there’s the new book of reminiscences they’ve co-authored. Then the Country Music Association announced that the Statlers would be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame (along with Tom T. Hall, Emmylou Harris and Ernest “Pop” Stoneman).
“I was alerted that I would get a call from the CMA,” says Harold in his droll subterranean drone. “I really thought that my dues were in arrears. It was hard to believe in the beginning. I started to tell the operator to check this call. It was a pretty special moment.”
Despite their long tenure and high profile in the music business, the brothers insist that their induction came as a total surprise. “We never allowed ourselves to think about that,” Don says.
Their book — The Statler Brothers: Random Memories — is filled with revelations about their 38-plus years on the road and in recording studios prior to the group’s retirement in 2002. Because Don kept precise records of all those years — down to the songs sung and the jokes told at specific concerts — their stories gleam with details.
It has long been public knowledge that founding member Lew DeWitt was sidelined and ultimately died from complications of Crohn’s disease. But the Reids reveal for the first time in their book that all the original Statlers were plagued by potentially fatal illnesses. Harold had cancer, Don had heart surgery, and Phil Balsley still suffers from diabetes.
“We never had [told anyone about this] before,” Don explains, “because we were still touring as a viable act. But if you’re going to write a book, you might as well tell things that people don’t know. We don’t share personal things easily, but at this time, that’s what we wanted to tell.”
“I think we wanted to write about the humanity — the human part of all these things,” Harold continues. “If you’re out there working and you’re sick or you feel bad — have a headache or a cold or flu or whatever — you still go out on stage and work as hard as you can and do the best you can. But we never went out and shared [our problems] with anybody.”
From the start, the Statlers paid close attention to the business side of show business. “We had seen so many people squander what they had made and treat it like it was never going to stop,” Don notes. “We never felt that way. We realized you’ve got to take care of [your money] from day one. We were all of that mind. So we always enjoyed just a little bit of it and socked most of it away.”
Adds Harold, “We’d heard all those stories over the years about two country music stars getting together and flushing money down the toilet to prove that one had more than the other. We decided that probably wasn’t a good idea.”
One surprise revelation, given the idyllic view of small-town, teenage life the Statlers presented in their songs, is that the Reids’ father had a drinking problem. Don mentions it only once in the book, and then quite briefly. Might that explain why so many of the hit songs Harold and Don wrote focused on their hometown instead of on their family?
“We wrote some songs about our dad,” says Don, “one specifically called ‘Dad’ that was on an album.”
“We wrote two about Mom, I believe,” Harold points out.
“We were very close to both of our parents and loved them dearly,” Don asserts. “Sometimes those relationships were so personal that we didn’t necessarily feel comfortable to expose them. There were a lot of things in our lives that we felt [the need] to keep personal.”
“It was another way that we departmentalized things,” Harold explains. “When you’re out on tour, you’re wearing a certain hat. When you’re at home and out in the park having a picnic with the kids, you definitely have another hat on. I think you protect yourself in those situations. It wasn’t any scandal or anything we decided to keep from the public.”
Before the Statlers’ career bloomed, Harold sold men’s clothing. It was a job that, coupled with his skills as an artist, inspired him in the years ahead to design costumes for his group. In 1969, he designed the black frock coat that became Johnny Cash’s trademark. (The Statlers got their start opening shows for Cash in 1964 and remained a part of his troupe for the next eight years.)
“It just tickled him,” Harold recalls. “Up to that time, he just wore shirt and pants that were black. This sort of added to his image and looked good for television.”
One of the Reids’ most endearing traits is that they are as prone to be star-struck as the rest of us. The book is a veritable roll call of celebrities they encountered — Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, John Wayne and, of course, Randolph Scott, about whom they so ardently sang in their 1974 hit.
Not all their idols lived up to their expectations, they admit. A wheelchair-bound Joan Crawford brushed them off like gnats and the imperious Jackie Gleason pretty much ignored their existence. Gleason, Harold remembered, “just got a chair, sat at the middle of the world and waited to hold court.”
Despite the shabby treatments, the Reids say they remain devoted fans of both stars.
Don tells in the book of striking up a conversation with Frank Sinatra by talking about the novelist John O’Hara. Sinatra had played one of O’Hara’s fictional creations in the movie Pal Joey.
“I discovered O’Hara when I was in high school,” Don relates, “and just read all his books I could find. I got to where I was reading them faster than he could write them.”
When the Statlers were invited to sing at a state dinner President Jimmy Carter gave for President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, Harold wound up talking to both leaders about their common love for American movies.
“[Sadat] was sincere,” Harold recalls. “He said, ‘If I’m home, almost every night we show a movie.’ What amazed me is that the Secret Service told me to go on over and talk to the two presidents sitting there. Now they won’t even let you talk to your wife in an airport.”
The Statler Brothers became famous for nourishing new performers by using them as opening acts — upstarts such as Barbara Mandrell, Reba McEntire, Ricky Skaggs and Suzy Bogguss. Another beneficiary was Garth Brooks.
Harold says he can’t remember how much they paid Brooks when they took him on the road but that he thought it was too much for an act nobody had heard of.
“Anyway, we went out for the weekend, and the guy performed and he was likable and everybody loved him. The complaint we got from our audience was, ‘Man, that guy up front’s OK, but his music’s too loud.’ But he was doing so well, we didn’t think it was good for us to go tell him that.”
Later on, the Statlers discovered Brooks had sung demos for their publishing company. “We’ve still got those tapes,” Harold beams. “We may put out a Garth Brooks album.”
Hold your attorneys, Garth. He’s just kidding.