(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.