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Pressing On: The Roni Stoneman Story

By Roni Stoneman, as told to Ellen Wright

University of Illinois Press, $19.95, 239 pages (paperback)

Reviewed by Dave Bagdade, August 2007

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Roni Stoneman, the "First Lady of the Banjo," has been one of the more colorful figures in country music (a genre which has hardly lacked colorful figures) for more than five decades. Listeners and television viewers know her from her many performances with the Stoneman Family as well as the Ironing Board Lady from Hee Haw. Those not intimately familiar with her might be less aware of the dire poverty in which she lived as a child or her five unsuccessful marriages.

Ellen Wright, Stoneman's collaborator, had a simple formula for this work: turn on the recorder, let Stoneman talk, and assemble the results into a book. Wright teaches in the Writing Program at Northwestern University, but is apparently a first-time book author. She describes the collaborative process between her and Stoneman as "Culture Clash at Cripple Creek," in which the big-city author and Nashville-to-the-core performer had a series of conversations.

Wright's contribution was to cull through 75 hours of recordings of these conversations in order to present the story in a first-person perspective in Stoneman's own words. The results, quite simply, are remarkable.

The story is presented in not-quite chronological order. It begins as Stoneman describes in detail the "pooristic" circumstances in which she grew up and the development of her musical ability and that of her many siblings. Every so often, there will be an intervening chapter in which Stoneman discusses in depth her feelings about her faith, her sister and so on. These interventions are more illuminating than they are distracting, and Stoneman is capable of going into some depth concerning areas which some might find highly personal.

In fact, Stoneman's openness is one factor that makes the book work. She is quite candid, sometimes almost recklessly so, in discussing not only her personal and family life, but also her career and some of the decisions she made. She also describes the difficulties she encountered as a not-always-strong woman in a male-dominated industry without ever getting on her soapbox. Her description of a banjo contest in which she participated as a teen - with the prize being a banjo her family could never have afforded - is particularly compelling.

She relates how the crowd made it clear who had won the contest, only to have the banjo being awarded to her competitor because the judges felt they could not let a girl win. Stoneman talks about these and other events with understandable emotion, but with a surprising lack of bitterness, which definitely makes this book an easier read. She is not afraid to blame those she feels deserving, but she does not hesitate to include herself where she feels it appropriate, and one cannot help but be struck by her sense of even-handedness.

This sense of friendly openness, surely nurtured by Wright, remains present through the whole book, as Stoneman takes the reader through the peaks and valleys of her long career - the Stoneman Family performances and television show, her long run as a member of the Hee Haw cast, her encounters with the leading and lesser lights of country music, as well as a highly personal look at her failed marriages and other relationships.

Because of this, "Pressing On" is a highly enjoyable reading experience, not merely for those who remember the Ironing Board Lady, but for any country fan.