Pressing On: The Roni Stoneman Story
Oral histories have one advantage: because they aren’t at the mercy of a biographer’s filters and interpretations, they reveal the personality behind the narrator, flaws and all, to give the stories warmth and depth. We become charmed, from bad grammar to meandering narrative, because we’re not separated from the story or its narrator by a go-between.
Veteran banjo player and comedienne Roni Stoneman gives us buckets full of that raw charm in her oral autobiography Pressing On. Known best as Ida Lee Nagger, the ironing board lady on “Hee Haw” with rag curlers in her hair and a voice that squealed worse than a set of worn brakes, Stoneman tells about growing up “pooristic” (epically poorer than poor) in a one-room house in Carmody Hills, Maryland. She was part of a large, talented family who learned to play on instruments either handmade by their father or bought on the cheap. She played professionally from her teen years onward, raising five kids (including a special-needs child) while going through five marriages to men who were either layabouts, abusers, addicts, cheats, or borderline sociopaths.
But Stoneman also tells us stories about the impressive successes of her family’s band, which had its own TV show (and played on several others), and of their extensive nationwide touring. The Stonemans were an energetic band that didn’t just stand onstage and play. They would dance and cavort like hill-folk dervishes. Their act was part bluegrass music, part circus and vaudeville show.
Stoneman also tells of meeting and playing with country and bluegrass superstars, of getting her long-running stint on “Hee Haw”, and of gradually rebounding after its cancellation.
Co-author Ellen Wright has skillfully assembled and corroborated Stoneman’s narratives. The book also has an extensive index in case you forget exactly where Stoneman tells the story of Faron Young accidentally dumping garbage on her during a bus tour.
There are no big revelations in Pressing On, no tell-all gossip, no “overcoming obstacles” movie-of-the-week messages, even though Stoneman overcame misfortunes that would cause some people to curl up under a table and sob for days. Instead, Stoneman’s story is crammed with her personality, full of funny anecdotes about her family and other performers with whom she worked, all wrapped in her hillborn cussedness.