Statlers say goodbye to all that

Along the way there have been countless concerts at school gyms and churches and county fairs, flat tires in the middle of Wyoming, and pre-dawn searches for good takeout.

After 38 years on the road, the Statler Brothers have trouble remembering specific days on tour, except the one that really got things going.

"March 9, 1964. Canton, Ohio," says founding member Harold Reid, nodding his head with certainty.

It was a blustery afternoon, and the four boys from Augusta County pulled up in a black 1952 Cadillac limousine. They wore matching suits and sang "This Land Is Your Land." Reid did some of his goofy impressions.

The main act, Johnny Cash, liked their style so much, he made the Statlers– Don and Harold Reid, Phil Balsley, and Lew DeWitt– his regular opening band.

"He said, 'You guys did a good job. You want to finish this tour with me?'" lead vocalist Don Reid remembers. "We said, 'You betcha.'"

Since then, the Statlers have been just about everywhere, touring two out of every three weeks at their peak in the 1970s and 1980s, producing their own cable TV show for several years in the 1990s and recording more than 50 albums.

Now their long ride through America is ending. Now that they've played Salem, they'll retire as one of country's most successful quartets.

"We've been blessed," says Harold Reid, seated in his office adorned with framed gold records. "There's a lot of people out there with more talent than us who have not been able to show what they could do.'"

The Statlers, named after a tissue box Harold Reid found in a hotel room, have spent their career singing schmaltzy ballads about drive-in theaters, lemonade stands, and backyard baseball. "Ah, do you remember these?" they sang.

But the sentimental stuff has never been an act.

The subject of their songs has always been their hometown of Staunton, a city of old brick cottages and narrow streets wedged between the mountains of western Virginia. Founding members Harold Reid, DeWitt, Balsley, and Joe McDorman grew up there in the 1950s.

"We played ball together, we double dated," Harold Reid says.

Later, on the road, they revived their past with memory games, humming back and forth and writing songs on restaurant receipts as their old Cadillac limousine lumbered along the interstate.

"We thought we were the only ones who cared about that stuff," Harold Reid says. "But then the mail would flood in from people who said, 'I've been thinking about that for years.' We would hear from people who never did those things but enjoyed the thought of it."

The Statlers signed with Columbia Records and released "Flowers on the Wall" in the mid-1960s. They later recorded hits such as "You Can't Have Your Kate and Edith, Too," "Carry Me Back" and "The Class of '57."

The simple lyrics and easy style were comfort food for a country struggling with the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.

Don Reid, Harold's younger brother, replaced McDorman in the early 1960s, and Jimmy Fortune took over for the ailing DeWitt in the 1980s. DeWitt, who suffered from Crohn's disease, died in 1990.

All the while, the group spent much of their time crisscrossing the country in the old Cadillac. Two would sit up front and the other two would stretch out on suitcases stacked in the back.

"We were able to see the world," Don Reid says.

They won numerous awards, including three Grammys, but the constant touring began taking its toll. They got tired of the endless diners, the loading and unloading of equipment, the hotels they'd check into in the middle of the night.

"You'd see the same cities over and over," Don Reid says, "but all you see is the hotel and the back door of the theater."

"I always thought of it like having a husband who drives a truck," says Joyce DeWitt, who married Lew in 1973. "I did some crazy things back then when he was gone. I knitted an afghan once, and it might as well have been a highway because it went on forever."

The Statlers are all married with children now, and the touring has been taking away the things they reminisced about in their songs.

"When you have kids, you miss those little school plays, those church pageants," Don Reid says. "The first 'A' on a report card. The baseball games. You weren't there for any of that."

The Statlers still live in Staunton and spend much of their time in an old brick schoolhouse they renovated 21 years ago. The striped suits stitched with American flags are behind glass, and the quilts, paintings, and other knickknacks from their fans are stored in a special room.

Sitting on a plush leather couch, Harold, 63, and Don, 57, say they haven't had time to think about retirement.

"Is it going to be like jumping off a ledge, like being really heavy and then just nothing?" Harold Reid says. "I don't know what to expect. Right now, I think it's going to feel good not to have any obligations."

The group still plans to record. They've just released "Amen,'" a collection of gospel songs.

Will they miss being on the road?

"Probably," Don Reid says.

Touring hasn't been so bad in recent years. When they arrived in Salem, they' pulled up in a luxury bus with satellite television to entertain a crowd that snapped up all available tickets in just hours.

"I guess you could say that's success," Harold Reid says.