LifeNotes: Old-Time Country Traditionalist Ramona Jones Passes

Ramona Jones. Photo: Grand Ole Opry Photo Archives

Ramona Jones. Photo: Grand Ole Opry Photo Archives

Champion old-time fiddler Ramona Jones died in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, at age 91 on Tuesday (Nov. 17).

She is known to millions who often saw her on TV’s Hee Haw as the wife and duet partner of Country Music Hall of Fame member Grandpa Jones (1913-1998). Both Ramona and Grandpa were devoted to preserving the folk songs and old-time tunes of country’s formative years of the 1920s and 1930s.

She was born Ramona Riggins on Jan. 28, 1924 in Raglesville, Indiana. Her father taught her to fiddle and she taught herself mandolin, guitar and bass. Her brothers began taking her to amateur contests when she was in high school, and she soon began collecting championship trophies.

Ramona had her radio debut on WHAS in Louisville when she was 15 years old. At age 18, she joined Sunshine Sue & The Rock Creek Rangers on WRVA in Richmond, Virginia, at its Old Dominion Barn Dance. She was billed as “The Little Indian Girl Fiddler.”

Pictured (L-R): Ramona Jones and Grandpa Jones. Photo: Grand Ole Opry Photo Archives

Pictured (L-R): Ramona Jones and Grandpa Jones. Photo: Grand Ole Opry Photo Archives

The group relocated to the 50,000-watt WLW in Cincinnati in late 1942. This is where she met banjo player Louis Marshall “Grandpa” Jones, who soon enlisted in World War II. During the war years, Ramona worked for a time in the “all-girl” band The Happy Valley Girls on WLW’s Boone County Jamboree. She also worked at WAVE in Louisville, Kentucky, and WKNE in Keene, New Hampshire, during the 1940s.

At the invitation of singer Bradley Kincaid, she moved to Nashville to join his show in 1946. Also in the troupe was Grandpa Jones, now back from the war. Ramona was next hired by The Bailes Brothers at WSM radio. She made her recording debut playing bass for the group, just a few days before marrying Grandpa in the summer of 1946. He became a member of WSM’s Grand Ole Opry that year.

In 1948, Ramona Jones had her debut solo performance on the Opry. Grandpa toured extensively, while Ramona mostly stayed in Nashville after she had daughter Eloise that year. But in 1951, the couple traveled together to entertain the troops on the front lines of The Korean War. The following year, the Joneses toured U.S. bases in Germany, Italy and Austria.

In 1954-56 they performed in a series of color films shot in Nashville by Al Gannaway. These were shown on TV for decades to come. They were also regulars on Town & Country Time, which was filmed in Washington, D.C., by Connie B. Gay.

The couple’s son, Mark, was born in 1955. Grandpa Jones had a recording contract with King Records in Cincinnati. Ramona recorded a series of duets with him there, including “Dark as a Dungeon,” “Don’t Sell Daddy Any More Whiskey,” “Count Your Blessings,” “Mountain Laurel,” “Eastbound Freight Train,” “Old Troup Dog” (written by Ramona) and “Four Winds A-Blowin.’” She also recorded with him on Decca, Monument, Starday, CMH, RCA and other labels.

Ramona Jones at Fan Fair in 1973. Photo: Les Leverett WSM/Grand Ole Opry Photo Archives

Ramona Jones at Fan Fair in 1973. Photo: Les Leverett WSM/Grand Ole Opry Photo Archives

Daughter Alissa was born in 1960. Ramona balanced child rearing with occasional tours accompanying Grandpa to the Canadian provinces, Hawaii and elsewhere. In 1964, she recorded some solo songs for Monument, including her self-composed “Lonesome Train” and “Sandy Land.” Maybelle Carter and Helen Carter were her harmony singers on these.

In 1965, Grandpa and Ramona became regulars on The Bill Anderson Show, a syndicated TV series. Hee Haw began airing in 1969, and for the next 25 years, Ramona Jones could be seen on the show vocally harmonizing and/or playing fiddle with Grandpa.

She recorded Back Porch Fiddlin’ as her first solo album in 1976. Ramona’s second and third solo albums were issued in 1979 and 1983. Dolly Parton featured her on the CBS-TV special Dolly and Carol in 1979. Two years later, Ramona was included on the LP The Women of Old-Time Music. Lady’s Fancy appeared as Ramona’s fourth solo album in 1986. She is also featured on such LPs as The Grandpa Jones Story (1976), Grandpa Jones Family Album (1979) and Grandpa Jones Family Gathering (1981).

Beginning in 1980, Ramona Jones began managing The Grandpa Jones Family Dinner Theater in Mountain View, Arkansas. This Ozarks tourism business thrived for the next decade. In 1986, she published her cookbook Ramona Jones Recipes to sell at the venue. It won an Arkansas Tourism Award during its heyday.

In 1991, Ramona Jones was presented with the Heritage Award at Uncle Dave Macon Days in Murfreesboro. In 1996, she was honored at the Memphis Dulcimer Festival. Her autobiography, Make Music While You Can, was published in 2000.

Ramona Jones is survived by her husband, Rev. W. Eugene Gober. Also surviving are her children Eloise Jones Hawkins; Mark Alan Jones, who is a banjo player and sound technician; and Alisa Jones Wall, who plays hammered dulcimer and autoharp, as well as by son-in-law Ron Wall, two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A Life Celebration will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday (Nov. 21) at Lutons United Methodist Church, 8363 Old Springfield Pike in Goodlettsville. Burial will follow at Lutons Cemetery.

The family will receive friends on Friday (Nov. 20) from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Cole & Garrett Funeral Home, 127 North Main St., Goodlettsville. Memorial donations can be made to the Opry Trust Fund, 2804 Opryland Dr., 37214.

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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