Don Reid, one of country music’s Statler Brothers, swears the group is hatching no plans to invade Nashville or L.A. “We’d like to make our hometown, Staunton, Va., the center of the recording industry,” he says. “Hasn’t happened yet, but we’re work-in’ on it.” That’s mostly a joke, brother, but not entirely. Staunton’s a drowsy little town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A recording mecca it isn’t. Yet the Brothers have won the Country Music Association’s coveted Best Vocal Group award for six straight years, as the shelves of the Statler Brothers’ modest office in Staunton testify.
This year their Best of LP became the first pure C&W album ever to go platinum (excepting crossovers like the rocking Outlaws, Partonesque popsters and the Denver, Newton-John fringe). Their latest release, Entertainers…On and Off the Record, could hit gold by fall—a staggering enough figure for straight country music.
Their resolve to stick close to Staunton is unshaken, though. “We have fought to keep our homes here,” says Don Reid, 33, the youngest Statler. “There’s something special about coming home and keeping in touch with the small-town life of America.” “There’s a very low crime rate in Staunton,” chimes in Lew DeWitt, 40. “We take great pride in leaving the keys in the car and the doors open.” Harold Reid, 39, is a real brother—of Don anyway. DeWitt and Phil Balsley, 39, are childhood pals from Staunton. The group picked its working name on a whim, they maintain, off a box of Statler facial tissues. Cracks Don: “We could just as easily be known as the Kleenex Brothers.” Harold adds: “I don’t think we can be corrupted. We decided over many years how to handle this. It isn’t like a 20-year-old happening overnight.”
They never expected, though, to find fans perching in trees at their homes or hunkering with cameras on their lawns at sunrise. “Hassles,” says Harold, “are never so bad that it’s not worth it, but lots worse than we ever dreamed.” Even with their self-imposed road limitations (July and December free every year; no more than 10 days at a clip; a lot of weekends off) they suffer 100 dates away from their families. Another sign that this isn’t Nashville or Hollywood is that all but DeWitt are still married to their first wives.
When they travel the Statlers go in style. Their lavishly customized tour bus has a film projector for their cherished collection of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry Westerns (one of their hit singles is titled Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?), plus comedies by the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello and shorts by the Bob Wills band. After shows, says Harold, “you come off so high from the audience you can’t just come down. We get in the bus, pull the curtains and pull out for the next town. It’s our only chance to really get away.”
Back in Staunton, explains Don, “you won’t find any outdoorsmen among us. We just like to sit around and relax.” Harold, Don and Phil are elders in the Olivet Presbyterian Church, and most members of the group’s extended family attend regularly. “It’s important to maintain your perspective,” says Harold. “I mean, one night you’re getting a police escort into a 15,000-seat hall; the next night you’re home asking, ‘What’s Mama been up to?’ and throwing a ball with the kids.”
The Statlers were boyhood chums and graduated from Wilson Memorial High. “I’m so damned tired of hearing that country music stars’ myth about picking cotton and Daddy was poor,” says Harold. “If they spent that much time picking cotton they wouldn’t have to sing for a living.” When the Statlers began singing seriously in 1957, it was gospel in church. Later, during tours with Johnny Cash, they were urged to record commercially, and their first single, Flowers on the Wall, broke them as a national act. In 1970 Bed of Roses began an eight-year string of solid country singles that has included Carry Me Back, I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You and, most recent, Do You Know You Are My Sunshine.
The financial rewards are evident in the lucrative pension plans for their families, large but tasteful homes and enough investments and shelter deals for two tax lawyers, based in Washington, D.C., to orchestrate. Still, shrugs Harold, with a twinge of disillusionment: “It can get so impersonal. We just found out three of our oil fields just came in. I don’t even know where our coal fields are. It’s not like I can feel them or have ever seen ’em. Heck, all I want is one of those metal helmets with the lights on it.”