Legendary quartet the Statler Brothers, whose tight harmonies and dynamic stage shows delighted decades of fans and influenced generations of country vocal groups that followed, are the subject of the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s newest spotlight exhibit, The Statler Brothers: Havin’ Quite a Time, which opens June 1. Incorporating photographs, costumes, instruments and song manuscripts from the Statler Brothers and the Museum’s collection, the exhibition, located within the Museum’s permanent exhibit, will run through May, 2011.
In conjunction with the exhibit, the Country Music Hall of Fame members—Phil Balsley, Jimmy Fortune, Don Reid and Harold Reid—will review their career and discuss the new exhibit on Thursday, June 3, at noon. The program, which is included with Museum admission and free to Museum members, will include an audience question-and-answer session. Following the program, the group will sign autographs in the Museum Store.
The Statler Brothers: Havin’ Quite a Time will trace the quartet’s nearly half-century career, from their early days touring with Johnny Cash to their eventual status as one of country music’s top-grossing and critically acclaimed acts. The Statlers’ unique mixture of humor, showmanship, musical talent and patriotism kept the tradition of quartet singing alive in country music and paved the way for subsequent groups such as the Oak Ridge Boys.
The Statlers’ origins can be traced to a high school group, the Four Star Quartet, which Harold Reid and Lew DeWitt formed with Phil Balsley and Joe McDorman in their hometown of Staunton, Virginia. By the time Harold re-formed the group as the Kingsmen in 1961, McDorman had left town and Harold’s younger brother, Don, came aboard. The Kingsmen performed pop, country and gospel songs, but their harmonies were modeled on those of white country gospel quartets like the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen.
In March 1964, Johnny Cash asked them to join his road show, where they performed for the next eight and a half years. That same year, they renamed themselves the Statler Brothers (after Statler tissues) because there was another successful group called the Kingsmen. Cash insisted that Columbia Records, for which he himself recorded, sign the group, and the Statler Brothers began recording in April 1964. Their first hit, “Flowers on the Wall,” was cut in March 1965 and became a Top 5 country and pop record. However, follow-up hits were elusive and the group’s career had stalled when Jerry Kennedy signed them to Mercury Records in 1969.
Their first Mercury single, “Bed of Rose’s,” was a Top Ten smash. Fifty more hits, all produced by Kennedy, followed over the next three decades. Among their biggest were the nostalgia-fueled tunes “Class of ’57,” “Do You Remember These” and “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott” and love songs like “I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You” and “Do You Know You Are My Sunshine?”
In addition to their tight harmonies and humorous, engaging stage presence, the Statlers also possessed prodigious musical talents, writing and arranging most of their hit songs. Their business acumen and well-honed instincts guided them in a succession of wise career decisions, such as initially avoiding overexposure on television and later (in 1991) agreeing to do a weekly TV show on The Nashville Network. They modeled their TNN show after 1950s TV variety programs, unapologetically catering to a segment of the market they believed overlooked by mainstream TV, and the show’s consistently high ratings validated that belief.
The group underwent only one change through the years: Lew DeWitt, who suffered from Crohn’s disease and left the group in 1982, was replaced by Jimmy Fortune. Fortune, though younger, possessed the same abilities and songwriting talent as the rest of the group, and his addition proved a seamless transition.
The Statler Brothers retired in 2002, but their fan base remains strong and the group’s influence on contemporary country music endures. The group, including the late Lew DeWitt, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008.
Among the artifacts on display in The Statler Brothers: Havin’ Quite a Time are:
- Custom-made stage costumes worn by all five members of the Statler Brothers
- Complete stage regalia worn by Lester ‘Roadhog’ Moran (Harold Reid’s comic alter ego), including custom leather belt buckle, gray-brown derby hat, Bronco cowboy boots, white clip-on bow tie and black-framed eyeglasses
- Handcrafted Fame classical guitar that the Statler Brothers used in the 1982 film Smokey and the Bandit II
- Vintage stage equipment, including a set of red, white and blue microphones and the group’s first public address system, acquired in 1961
- A 1964 concert poster for the Johnny Cash Show, which included the Statler Brothers
- Don Reid’s original, handwritten manuscripts to “Susan When She Tried” and “I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You.” Both songs were hits for the group in 1975
The Statlers are also the subject of a new, in-depth feature, When It Was Always Summer, and She Was Always Mine: How the Statler Brothers Opened Up Country Music, in the Journal of Country Music, the Museum’s online publication. The Journal has been the leading serious periodical covering country music since its inception in 1971 and is now available to view free of charge on the Museum’s Web site. The article, written by Ed Morris, is enhanced by audio and film clips from the Museum’s collection and is viewable here.