Statler Brothers, One Of A Kind

By Ed Tutwiler

There is a sad feeling that sometimes over-takes those of us who reach an old age and suddenly realize a lifetime has unrolled toward a retreating past and cannot be retrieved. That feeling sometimes includes the realization that one has missed an important happening that cannot be recreated.

Being a writer for a music magazine has permitted me to encounter many music artists and many music styles over time; and seldom does greatness pass by unnoticed. However, such a realization did happen to me recently. Let me tell you about my experience.

A good church friend, Larry Johnson, recently asked me if I was a fan of The Statler Brothers; and would I care to read a book about them he had received for Christmas. My reply was that I was somewhat familiar with the group seeing as they were natives of nearby Staunton, VA but was not too aware of their body of work; nevertheless, I certainly would love to read his new book. What follows here is a qusi-review of Larry’s book but also my sad admission that I missed an important musical happening that cannot be recreated.

The book is titled: The Music of the Statler Brothers, An Anthology, and it is written by Don Reid and published by Mercer University Press, Macon, GA 31207. Don Reid, of course, was lead singer and one of the founding members of the Statler Brothers quartet, which included Don and Harold Reid, Phil Balsey, and Lew DeWitt (later replaced by Jimmy Fortune).

Telling Stories
Mr. Reid is an excellent story teller with an easy to read writing style. This book is only the latest in a line of nine books he has written—stores about a long musical career; diverse fictional novels; and road memories. This particular book tells the story behind the writing of many of the successful songs recorded by the group over their career. Many of those songs were written by Don Reid alone or co-written with his brother, Harold, or sometimes with his son, Debo. In fact, Don has had over 250 of his songs recorded by not only The Statlers, but also by Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, The Cathedrals, and Elvis Presley to name a few. He personally has won 18 BMI Writer Awards (these awards are given for the most played songs on the radio each year).  Many of Don’s songs have been top ten and number one records.

Mr. Reid sets this book into sections headed by album titles and then lovingly tells the story behind each of the 10 or 11 songs that made it onto each album.

Here is a good place to explain in Don’s own words how the group picked the songs to include on an album: “When you have four opinions to consider, it gets a little complicated so we invented what we called (for the rest of our career) the 4-Star System. We would sit down at our offices in Staunton, weeks before we were due in Nashville to begin a new album with a stack of tapes and lyric sheets in front of us. Each of us would bring songs we had written, songs we had been pitched, and old songs to which we thought we could give a new spark, and we would sing them or play a tape of them for the other three.

How We Did It
As we listened, each of us would make a list of the titles, and after hearing them all, we would vote on them. We may have 20 or more songs, and we had to choose 11 of the songs for the album. We gave each song from one to four stars on our individual lists. Maybe we would give one and a half stars to a song, maybe three or three and a half stars, and so forth. If we would really love a particular song, we would give it the highest rating of four stars. After voting, we would all give Phil our lists for him to add up. (Not sure why, but from day one, it was always Phil.) After his calculations, each entry would have anywhere from four to 16 stars. The 11 highest rated songs would be our album, and any that earned 16 stars became the singles. Can you think of a fairer or more diplomatic way of each partner getting an equal vote? We could not. That was our star system, and it always worked for us.”

Needless to say, The Statler Brothers musical quartet passed this writer by in their mid 20th century rise to the top of the country music world. I was then being dazzled by groups featuring three electric guitars, loud drums, and a screaming tenor. Oh, I remember, visiting my string-music loving mother sometimes as she and my Dad watched Johnny Cash’s TV show that featured the Statlers; and I was vaguely aware that their 4th of July free concerts in Staunton, VA drew many thousands of fans for 25 years.

Variety Show
I may have even watched one of their award-winning Saturday night TV variety shows that ran from 1991 to 1997 on The Nashville Network (TNN) and was that network’s top-rated program. (As an aside, the group wrote all the scripts for these shows, and wrote them in a manner that made them resemble a typical 1950s variety show—a strategy they deliberately pursued to reach a wide, often underserved audience.) While hit records eluded them during this tenure, the TV exposure supported their tours where they consistently played to sellout crowds until they retired from the road in 2002.

Nevertheless, while some of us find ourselves in the presence of greatness and immediately recognize where we are and bask in it; others, like me, let greatness pass us by until it is too late to catch it. Alas, I was never aware of how really great those guys were while in their prime until reading Don Reid’s Anthology. For example, did you know:

The Statlers released over 40 albums. This discography consists of 37 studio albums, 18 compilation albums, three live albums, 83 singles, and 14 music videos. 13 of the albums received gold status and eight received platinum status.

The group won three Grammy Awards and was named top vocal group by the Country Music Association not just once, but nine times. In addition they garnered 48 Music City/TNN Awards.

The Statlers earned the number-one spot on the Billboard chart four times, for “Do You Know You Are My Sunshine?” in 1978, “Elizabeth” in 1984, and in 1985, “My Only Love” and “Too Much on My Heart.”

They are the most award-winning act in the history of country music.

The Statlers were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in the fall of 2007; and in 2008 they were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.  They are only the sixth act ever to be entered into both Halls.

One Last Time
In 2002, The Statler’s presented a final concert show in Roanoke, VA and quietly retired from show business after 40 years. Lew had retired from the group in 1982 in ill health and passed away in 1990, Harold died in 2019 at age 80. Phil now lives a quiet life in Staunton; Don embarked upon a successful writing career and still lives in Staunton as well. Jimmy went on to a successful solo career as a singer/songwriter and now resides in Nashville.

As of 2023, the combined net worth of the Statler Brothers is estimated to be approximately $100 million, making them one of the wealthiest groups in the country music genre. Their enduring success, driven by their exceptional talent and dedicated fan base, ensured their financial prosperity throughout the years.

After reading Don Reid’s Anthology, I immersed myself in all things Statler by listening to their albums and watching a DVD of their farewell concert of 2002. I truly did not know what I had missed until now.

If you were a fan, then you must read Don Reid’s book. The book will capstone your fandom. If you, like me, failed to catch the ride, you will still enjoy the story. Thank you, Larry, for sharing your Christmas present with me.