Counting Flowers

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(Pictured: the Statler Brothers in 1981; L to R, Harold Reid, Phil Balsley, Don Reid, Lew DeWitt.)

(Here’s one of those posts I warned you about at the very beginning: one that may not be of interest to anyone but me.)

I have written many times over the years that I grew up in a house where the radio was always on. And even before I had my own music on my own stations, I was absorbing what I was hearing on Mother and Dad’s radios. That education served me well when I became a radio DJ. My first paying job, at KDTH in Dubuque, involved playing country music, mostly. Although I would not have claimed to know anything about country when I started there, I soon realized that I did, because I’d grown up listening to it, even if I hadn’t intended to. One of the acts I discovered that I knew pretty well was the Statler Brothers.

The Statlers’ first big hit, “Flowers on the Wall,” from 1965, was yet another song I knew before I knew that I knew it. After “Flowers on the Wall,” the Statlers were best known for performing with Johnny Cash; they were on the bill with Cash at Folsom Prison in 1968. They had a small handful of country hits during the last half of the 60s; the 1967 top-10 hit “You Can’t Have Your Kate and Edith Too” was a template for a lot of what was to come. Comedy became a big part of the Statler Brothers’ stage show, but their gift for wordplay gave a lot of their songs unexpected emotional depth.

For example, you learn a lot about a certain small town in these two lines: “She was called a scarlet woman by the people / Who would go to church but left me in the streets.” Those are the opening lines from “Bed of Rose’s,” which at the end of 1970 became the Statlers’ biggest hit since “Flowers on the Wall.” The possessive “Rose’s” is correct; the singer is a homeless 18-year-old boy, and the nature of his relationship with Rose, the town’s lady of the evening, is ambiguous. I’ve always chosen to think, however, that by the end of Rose’s life, he loves her as if she were his mother. “Bed of Rose’s” crossed over to the pop chart, making #58 on the Hot 100.

In 1972, the Statlers scored two Top-10 hits that they’d sing at every show for the rest of time. “Do You Remember These,” a laundry list of pop culture items from the 40s and 50s, resonated strongly with their generation, born in the 1930s. “The Class of ’57” had a similarly nostalgic vibe, and is again in the form of a list, as the Statlers describe what happened to each of their classmates. But the list packs a subtle wallop:

Betty runs a trailer park
Jan sells Tupperware
Randy’s on an insane ward and Mary’s on welfare
Charlie took a job at Ford
Joe took Freddie’s wife
Charlotte took a millionaire and Freddie took his life

If you could write a lyric like that, why wouldn’t you?

Unlike many country acts, the Statler Brothers wrote most of their own songs. Harold and Don Reid, the group’s only actual brothers, were the principal songwriters, together and separately; their names are on the group’s biggest hits, including “Bed of Rose’s,” “Do You Remember These,” “The Class of ’57”, “I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You” (which made #93 on the Hot 100) and “Do You Know You Are My Sunshine,” which in 1978 became the first of the group’s four #1 country hits.

By the turn of the 80s, the Statlers fell into a familiar trap for country artists of the time: the need to release three singles a year meant that not all of them were going to be classics. Some would be pretty slight, and they would disappear from memory as soon as they fell out of current rotation. Nevertheless, practically everything they released between 1978 and 1986 made the country Top 10. They hit #1 as late as 1985 and charted for the last time in 1989. They hosted a syndicated TV show in the 80s and 90s before they retired from performing in 2002. Somehow, it took until 2008 for them to make the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Founding Brother Lew DeWitt (who wrote “Flowers on the Wall”) left the group in 1982 and died in 1990. This past weekend, Harold Reid, whose baritone anchored the Statlers’ unique sound, died after a long illness. He was 80.

7 thoughts on “Counting Flowers

  1. Alvaro Leos

    Great writeup on the Statlers. Just some more notes:
    Being such a big Kurt Vonnegut fan, I’m stunned you didn’t mention he was a big fan of the group and even called them “America’s Poets”.
    Only 4 number one hits? That’s stunning, especially considering they were the only acts pre-George Strait to regularly go gold without having pop/rock crossover. In contrast, a relatively forgettable act like TG Sheppard scored 14 country chart toppers.
    The Country Hall of Fame takes forever to induct acts. Maybe a post on who hasn’t made it is in order?

  2. Wesley

    Never apologize for any of your posts, JB. If someone doesn’t appreciate or understand your well-written and researched remembrances, it’s their loss, not yours.

    My favorite memory of The Statler Brothers comes from their 1973 top 20 country hit “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott.” My first exposure to it came from the 1976 movie “Drive-In,” where it appeared during the end credits. I’m still not sure if juxtaposing it against the very heavily PG-rated activities of mostly teenagers at a drive-in movie in Texas was supposed to be a commentary about the movie itself or the film industry overall. Maybe it was just a song that the producers liked and/or could afford. In any event, as you mention about previous SB songs, it’s got powerful lyrics and a catchy melody to make it memorable, even if its lyrics about the change in cinema by the 1970s such as “Everybody’s tryin’ to make a comment/About our doubts and fears/True Grit’s the only movie/I’ve really understood in years” come off as somewhat reactionary. Then again, I doubt the group had any idea that their title character was in a relationship with Cary Grant while becoming a western matinee idol.

    I’ve probably rambled too much about this, so let me just wind up by saying the Statlers came off as professional music makers willing to take some chances and carve their own little distinctive niche in the Nashville sound for decades. For that alone, I salute them. RIP Lew DeWitt and Harold Reid.

  3. It was just another quarantine day, last Saturday, I’d just come home from a mile run followed by a 3 mile walk. I sat down, started scrolling twitter and saw the news about Harold Reid. It bothered me more than I would have thought.
    Within a few minutes, I texted my brother (6 yrs older than I) and shared the news. Like me, he was sad to hear of it. It was my brother who had exposed me to the Statlers.
    I spent the next 2 hrs listening to them. I have a fairly extensive library of their music. My two favorites would probably be “Don’t Wait on Me” and “Do You Remember These”. There are dozens of their songs though that could easily be in the top 2-3 on any given day.
    My father was an excellent bass singer with his favorites being JD Summner, Harold Reid and The Oak Ridge Boys’ Richard Sterban. I’ve always thought of Harold as the common man’s bass singer. I sing a lot, and enjoy it, but don’t have the talents I’d like to.
    Some other favorites that you may or may not be aware of are “Whatever”, “We Got Paid by Cash” and “One Takes the Blame”. “The Class of 57” has the line “Linda married Sonny, Brenda married me”… well my brother’s name is Sonny and yep, his wife is Linda. I’ve always enjoyed singing that line.
    Their Christmas music has been a part of my holidays for decades now. If you don’t have any, get some. They do well on the standards, but try some of their own songs like “I Never Spend a Christmas That I Don’t Think of You”, “Christmas to Me” and “The Christmas Medley”.
    I’m thankful for all of their music and being a huge Johnny Cash fan makes me like the Statlers even more. Like Wesley said, “I’ve probably rambled too much” but I enjoyed your post and just had to run with it. Also like Wesley said, if others don’t enjoy your takes on music, that’s okay, but trust me… there’s a lot of us living in the exact same world, just miles apart. Thanks JB and the others for the comments.

  4. mikehagerty

    Think about what an achievement “Flowers on the Wall” was. Ignore Wikipedia (often good advice)’s Statler Brother singles discography, which shows “Flowers” peaking at #125 on the pop chart—-it actually made #4.

    It was number ONE at KHJ, Los Angeles in the peak of Beatlemania, on a station working very hard on establishing its hip bona fides in its first year as a Top 40 station in a city that, even then, was not a Country music stronghold.

  5. mackdaddyg

    My dad didn’t listen to music much, but he literally had every album the Statler Brothers made. That was pretty much the only music he’d listen to, so I learned more about their material growing up than most people. I still remember the Lester Roadhog bits they did.

    I had no idea they wrote their own songs. A lot of their hits are really top notch, so that’s even more impressive.

  6. Brian L Rostron

    The Statlers are justifiably the pride of Staunton, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley. Along with Woodrow Wilson. I lived for a year just off Lew Dewitt Boulevard in nearby Waynesboro.

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