Cliffie Stone: 1917 to 1998
Owen Bradley, Carl Perkins, Cliffie Stone — the recent deaths of these country music giants raise the obvious but vexing question: Who’s gonna fill their shoes? More than just major figures, each of these men stamped their character and vision onto music that is now part of our national consciousness. Bradley gave us the lush, string-laden Nashville Sound; Perkins the vernacular of rockabilly guitar; Stone the West Coast honky-tonk that became the Bakersfield Sound of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
Spice kids Shania and Garth will go down in history for the units they moved, Music Row producer-execs Tony Brown and Jimmy Bowen for their devotion to the bottom line; but Bradley, Perkins, and Stone loom as standard-bearers. In light of the recent passings of Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, and Bill Monroe, not to mention the declining health of Owens, Haggard, Kitty Wells, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Chet Atkins, and others, it indeed looks as though a classic era in country music is drawing to a close.
When Cliffie Stone died in California Jan. 17 at age 80, he left behind a towering legacy, one that few people in the business will ever rival. One of the principal architects of the West Coast country boom of the 1940s and ’50s, Stone helped launch the careers of Merle Travis, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ferlin Husky, Skeets McDonald, and hot-licks duo Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant. In the 1950s, Stone (a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame) also established Central Songs, an enormously influential publishing house that owned material written by Buck Owens, Tommy Collins and the Louvin Brothers. At the time, the Central Songs catalog also included tunes from the pen of a promising young songwriter named Harlan Howard.
Stone, born Clifford Snyder in 1917, was a honky-tonk renaissance man par excellence. He broke into the business in the early 1940s, first as a bass player, then as a bandleader and as host of popular radio and TV programs, most notably “Hometown Jamboree”, the show that jump-started the careers of Travis and Ford, along with many others. Before hanging out his shingle as a publisher, Stone also had considerable success as a songwriter: His collaborations with Travis, “Divorce Me C.O.D.” and “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed”, topped the country charts in 1946 and ’47. Stone also managed the careers of numerous artists, produced hundreds of recording sessions, and helped establish the Academy of Country Music, the West Coast’s answer to the Nashville-based Country Music Association.
“I know Cliffie did all these wonderful things,” observed Kay Adams, the Bakersfield singing sensation (“Little Pink Mack”) who worked with Stone during the 1960s and ’70s. “But the thing I remember most is his deep, rich laugh. I can just see him throwin’ his head back havin’ a big laugh — the kind that reaches down to the midriff. The pressures of the music business can take that away from you in a hurry. But Cliffie never let anything change him. He was a real sweetheart.”