Welcome to the first of a monthly series of articles about the unexpected and often forgotten musical history of the D.C. area, contributed by Ken Avis, a performing musician, historian and broadcaster, who has been revealing stories of a political town with a serious music habit in lectures at the Smithsonian and at George Mason for Encore Learning.
Ken Burns’ “Country Music” documentary series debuted this month on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS); it is an epic and fascinating story of the rise of a uniquely American musical form. Many have forgotten that the D.C. area, including northern Virginia, was acknowledged as America’s country music capital during the 1950s….yes, really!
A 1940s wave of migration to the expanding D.C. area in search of construction and administration jobs brought people from the Carolinas, Virginia and Maryland to escape rural poverty. D.C. had become America’s biggest construction site during the ‘40s, building government offices and the Pentagon, which created well-paid jobs. The migrants brought their music, their fiddles, guitars and banjos with them. Given the pressure for housing at the time, they moved from rural Maryland, the Carolinas and Atlanta to areas like Arlington and Anacostia, and later to the outer suburbs, which were also developing.
One of the migrants was Ernest Stoneman of Galax, Va. He was the first person to record and later became the talent scout and recording engineer at the famous “Bristol Sessions” in Tennessee, which were to catapult the Carter family and Roger Miller to fame, and kindle interest in old-time country sounds. A star in his own right, Stoneman’s fortunes declined during the Depression. He migrated to the D.C. area with his family in 1932 to work at Navy Yard. By the 1950s, his daughters, Roni and Donna Stoneman, led the family band, performing at local honky-tonk bars with names like The Ozarks, Club Hillbilly and The Village Barn. They went on to star in the long-running television show “Hee-Haw”, and hosted their own country music series. Grammy and Country Hall of Fame induction followed as they moved in the 1960s to the burgeoning music-industry town of Nashville.
One of the Stonemans’ initial stepping-stones was winning talent competitions organized by Connie B. Gay, another migrant who had an indelible impact on the music through his activities as a promoter and broadcaster. Gay came from Lizard Lick, North Carolina to work as a government soil scientist. He pitched the new Arlington WARL radio station in 1946 to allow him to host a show for incoming folks, who wanted to hear the ‘hillbilly’ music, which was absent from D.C. airwaves. His show “Town & Country” quickly became a success and was broadcasted all across America by a network of radio stations, which Gay gradually purchased. When television came along in the late 50s, he repeated the process with his television version of the show. Gay is credited with giving ‘hillbilly’ or ‘honky-tonk’ music a new name: “country music.” He became the first president of the Country Music Association, with his statue standing proud at the Country Music Hall of Fame. His grave remains in Fairfax County.
Gay’s influence extended beyond television and radio. He presented weekly “Country Music Jamboree” shows at baseball stadiums and on Potomac riverboats, including one which featured the first D.C. performance of a young singer from Memphis, Elvis Presley. Presley’s “Hound Dog” hit the charts by the time he arrived in D.C. to perform – the boat was so packed that the police refused to let it leave the dock…but the show went on. Gay famously promoted a series of broadcasts live from 26 sold out shows at the DAR Constitution Hall, and for a short time, he promoted D.C.’s Grand Ole Opry! Gay supported careers of country greats like Patsy Cline, Jimmy Dean and Roy Clark, all from around the area. Clark went on to host the television program “Hee-Haw” with Buck Owens all through the 1970s.
Country music shifted to Nashville, as the music became ever more commercial, but D.C.’s role evolved as the area came to be considered the “nation’s bluegrass capital.” Local bands like the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene were the big players at venues like the Red Fox Inn, Bethesda and later The Birchmere, while simultaneously developing national and international followings. The advent of the singer-songwriters in the 1970s was marked by the emergence of Grammy winning country artists like Emmylou Harris, and later, Mary Chapin Carpenter…but that’s another story for the “Music City DC!”