Farewell in Salem: Legendary Statler Brothers call it quits

"That's how you're going to beat 'em, Butch. They keep underestimating you." –Bruce Willis, Pulp Fiction.

 I still have vivid memories of K-Tel record commercials, golden oldies collections, and hits by Boxcar Willie or the Statler Brothers. This conditioning has assured that refrains from tunes like "Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?" linger long in my mind, popping up when I least expect them like strange kitschy phantoms.

Despite this regular subliminal imprinting, I never purchased a Statler record, and thus never heard the entirety of "Randolph Scott" until very recently, when the announcement of the final concert piqued my interest.

Final concert? Can this be? The Statlers– though no longer strapping young bucks– still have enough four-part harmonies in them to rock houses for a couple more decades. After all, they're a country music tradition, the last holdout of an all-but-vanished mode of family entertainment– albeit one that industry executives always considered an unlikely source of decent revenue.

But with four decades, dozens and dozens of industry awards, a slew of gold and platinum albums and a popular TNN show under their collective belt, the Statlers have disproved the nay-sayers.

Then there's Staunton, where the vocal quartet stubbornly remained throughout their lives and careers, despite industry prodding to move to more propitious entertainment venues. In Staunton, where Statler Boulevard stretches away from the main drag and a converted grade school houses the Statler Complex– a museum, gift shop, and H.Q. for the group– the Statler Brothers have long been favorite sons, a fact nicely illustrated by the success of their mammoth annual July 4 "Happy Birthday, U.S.A." concerts.

Before that 26-year tradition ended in 1994, those free shows drew tens of thousands of people to the small hilltop city. After all that, the Statlers can't just quit, can they?

Apparently so. Tickets for the October 26, Salem Civic Center show dubbed "A Final Bow" sold out six months ago– in less than 90 minutes. Simultaneously, through their website and fan mailings, the group announced the closing of the Statler Complex. On Halloween, the museum shuts its doors to reopen in the near future as a school again.

Perhaps it's time for a visit.

Downtown Staunton is quite lovely, with gorgeous old homes and early 20th century industrial buildings lining its hilly streets– a little like Charlottesville, but smaller, quainter, and frankly, prettier.

The Statler Complex sits at the edge of downtown, a two-story brick structure pierced by oversized industrial windows typical of institutional construction in the early 1900s. It must have been quite a coup when the boys purchased their old grade school. A tour guide at the museum claims one of the Statlers broke a window as soon as they bought the place– apparently he'd always wanted to do that as a boy.

A Don's Tours bus rolls up shortly before 2pm, dumping a few dozen mostly elderly visitors on the lawn, and soon we are led into the school's gymnasium. A life-size cardboard mock-up of the band stands on the stage at one end of the room, next to the basketball hoop. Brief questioning identifies visitors from South Carolina, Kansas, Los Angeles, New Jersey, Maryland, and Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia!

The building is modest inside, so the tour isn't too long. It takes in the vintage classroom restored by the Statlers when they bought the dilapidated school, a hallway full of photos, awards, and gold records, a room dedicated to Statler memorabilia and donated fan items, and the obligatory gift shop. Four classrooms upstairs provide offices for the stars, but we don't see the boys themselves. They're winding down the final tour.

In their 38-year recording career, the Statlers earned three Grammy Awards– two in 1965, when they took both the Best New Country & Western Group, and the Best Contemporary Performance by a Group– for the single "Flowers On The Wall" (beating out the Beatles and the Supremes for the honors). They have nine Country Music Association and 48 Music City News Awards, among others. There are 13 gold records to their name, three platinum records (including the Pulp Fiction soundtrack), one double platinum record, and one triple platinum record.

The walls of the Statler Complex are covered with pictures of the Statlers: as boys; playing softball with Minnie Pearl and Oprah Winfrey; shaking hands with Presidents George Bush and Ronald Reagan.

The memorabilia room houses the Statlers' first sound system in a glass case along with U.S.A.-themed embroidered suits worn by the group in its earliest years. The whole room is swimming in stars and stripes. Crocheted banners declaring Statler love and a quilt with Statler song patches hang along with carved, etched, and embossed Statler goodies made and donated by adoring fans.

Any of this stuff would look right at home on some of my relatives' mantels, and since none of it is secured in any way, some things could easily be liberated for that purpose. I quickly give up the thought, however, as a feeling of deep respect comes over me.

After all, this is a group that swam upstream all the way to the top and stayed there for four decades. When the Statlers started out in the late '50s and early '60s– originally as the Four Star Quartet and then as the Kingsmen– there was little precedent for their idiom. Outside of gospel, singing quartets were rare, and country music was already pushing toward some distant, gritty vanishing point.

Still, the four light-hearted lads from Staunton pestered Johnny Cash until 1964 when he let them share his stage and open his shows, which they did for eight years before beginning to write their own ticket.

In the country music industry of the '60s, the Statlers (only two of whom– Don and Harold Reid– are actual brothers) seemed an impossible success story. When another band called the Kingsmen had a huge hit in "Louie, Louie," there was a scramble for a new name. Legend has it that Harold spied a box of Statler tissues in a hotel room. Presto.

In 1965, during a lunch break on a Johnny Cash session, they recorded "Flowers On The Wall." It rose to #4 on the pop charts, a smash hit, and people began to take notice. Still, it would be years before they could assert complete creative control over their music, and even then, they had to change record labels (from Columbia to Mercury) to have things their way.

Early Statlers singles are reminiscent of the folky pop of the period, sounding right at home next to early recordings of Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Everly Brothers.

Statler harmonies and arrangements were always fresh, and the lyrics creative to the point of camp. Check out the puns in tunes like "You Can't Have Your Kate and Edith, Too," and "Ruthless." But the Statlers also regularly asserted their gospel roots in beautiful ballads and hymns such as the chilling "Shenandoah."

"Old time" values are prevalent throughout their career, and the Statlers are often credited with helping to rekindle the '50s nostalgia craze that led to American Graffiti and Happy Days, with tunes like "Class of '57" and "Moments to Remember." Heavily pro-American at a time when youth culture was learning to despise the government, they started their "Happy Birthday, U.S.A. in the summer of '69. And still their fan base grew.

By the '70s, the Statlers had moved firmly into C&W territory, and their reputation as both a singing group and entertainers was established. Statler shows were more than just a romp through some old faves; they had become a way to visit with a bunch of goofy guys who could tell jokes in tandem and deliver comedic bits the Smothers Brothers would have been proud of before bursting into some long-remembered musical nugget.

In 1982, when Lew DeWitt, original Statler and author of "Flowers on the Wall," began suffering with Crohn's Disease and had to leave the group, another Virginia boy, Jimmy Fortune, was brought in to fill the tenor slot. The Statlers kept plugging along, winning awards and playing for presidents.

In the early '90s, the Statlers began producing their own show for cable station TNN, and they soon rose to the top spot on that network. The group was more popular than ever: A 1996 Harris Poll found the Statlers to be the second most popular vocalists in the U.S.– right after Frank Sinatra and just before Reba McEntire.

After Quentin Tarantino used "Flowers On The Wall" as found music in his 1994 indie masterpiece, Pulp Fiction, even hipsters couldn't avoid them. (Bruce Willis' Butch character is singing along to it in his Honda when he spots– and then runs over– Ving Rhames' Marsellus character.)

By 1999, however, TNN bowed to the pressures of modern CMT-style country and dropped the Statler Brothers Show.

***

Now, with the "Final Bow" looming, it seems the Statler brand of family fare is near extinction. I decide to head to the concert.

Outside the Salem Civic Center, on the outskirts of Roanoke, a battery of Quick's tour buses is delivering well-dressed senior citizens by the hundreds. Vendors are selling special commemorative inserts from today's Staunton News Leader for five bucks each. For $.50 in Staunton, you can get the same Statler insert and a whole newspaper to boot. Oh well. I scalp a ticket from a tour group, and I'm in.

A modest stage presses against the back wall with a massive U.S. flag as a backdrop. This is not post-9/11 posturing on the part of the Statlers– flags have always been a part of their stage set. After all, this is band that wrote "More than a Name on a Wall," a tribute to a soldier killed in Vietnam. And this crowd is an unflinchingly American tribe, true blue in their Sunday garb.

Seven thirty rolls around, and the house lights dim. A spotlight picks out a U.S. flag on a flagpole– the kind with the gold fringe from your third grade classroom– and the crowd rises for a recording of the Statlers singing the national anthem. A warm wave of patriotism rushes over the crowd.

Soon Tara Lynn, who has been on the road with the Statlers for the past four years, comes out to warm up the faithful. Lynn's solid voice and warm presence does justice to a mix of mostly cover tunes sung to pre-recorded rhythm tracks.

After a 15-minute break, the Statlers' All-American Band takes the stage for "Call Me Lonesome From Now On." The guitar player pauses to welcome attending state legislators to the show and reads a friendly letter from President George W. Bush. Then singing sausage magnate Jimmy Dean, a picture of southern industrial charm in his blue blazer and white cowboy hat, comes out to introduce the Statlers.

As they burst onstage to the peppy strains of "Do You Remember These," the Statlers' corny, gentlemanly charm is immediately captivating. These are former TV showmen, after all. Winking at and waving to fans are skills they mastered long ago, and their grand-scale schmoozing is palpable even from the very back of the 7,000-seat room where I've settled with my adopted tour group. It's definitely show business, but the singers are obviously moved by the crowd's rapture. Throughout their set, people file to the stage with bouquets of flowers and other devotional offerings.

The only rift in the overall wholesomeness of the scene is an occasional almost-off-color jibe by team funnyman Harold Reid. Remarking on how hot he's getting in his suit and tie, he quips "What's this, October in Salem? Well, it's the fourth of July in my pants." Big laughs circle the room. These are church-going folks, but they won't let a knee-slapper pass unappreciated.

For this, their final night onstage together, the Statlers deliver their stock touring show, with the addition of a list of thank-yous read by Don Reid– to Lew DeWitt who died in 1990, to their soundmen, managers, wives, mothers, bus drivers, and friends– an assurance to their fans that they aren't sick (just tired), and a moving rendition of "Amazing Grace," the first song they sang together.

After an hour and a half, the Statlers bid adieu, and the crowd lets them go without roaring demands for more encores. That's the scene for you: all love and no trouble– pure America like your grandma remembers.

I still can't believe this is the last hurrah. If so, it's been a strong run. The Statlers packed houses their whole career and never left their fans or their ideals in the lurch, and that ain't easy. They eschewed the perils of a vicious music industry, becoming one of the most decorated acts in country music history, their success built on the strength of their internal administrative skills, their busload of entertaining charm and talent, and the unstoppable love of thousands of devoted fans. And they still live in their hometown of Staunton.

Harold Reid, Don Reid, Phil Balsley, Lew DeWitt and Jimmy Fortune touched a lot of people, and the Statler legend will surely linger.