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#6: Stoney Edwards, "Poor Folks Stick Together"
This is the sixth edition of Honky-Tonk Weekly, a weekly(ish) column here at the Tropical Depression Substack. You can read previous editions here. Every week, I will listen to and share a country song and write whatever comes to mind. Listen along! This week, we’re asking the folks down at City Hall with Stoney Edwards.
He was born on Christmas Eve in Seminole Country, Oklahoma. His daddy’s name was Rescue; he went by Bub. His mama’s name was Ollie; she went by Red.
A bootlegger by the name of Frenchy happened to be passing through that day, so they named the boy Frenchy. Frenchy Edwards, why not?
“I was supposed to look like him,” he said later. “But, you know, one time I guess I didn’t have nothing else to do, I went and looked him up, and you know, he was the ugliest sonofabitch I ever did see.”
Bub was a farmer, part Black and part Irish. Red was half Native American and I believe half Black. “I grew up not knowing what I was, Negro, Indian, or white,” Edwards told Peter Guralnick, who wrote an outstanding chapter on Edwards in his book Lost Highways: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians.
Edwards was one of seven children. It’s a little hazy what happened, but his mother split when his baby brother was less than a year old. “That’s why I never did go to school,” he told Guralnick:
The ones ahead of me did, but I practically raised two sisters and a brother under me. We’d feed the baby sugar tit, my mother would just come by every now and then. I used to work, farm for people, when I was small I would plow or do any kind of farmwork, really. We used to hunt, fish, we caught rabbits, we used to walk barefooted in the snow.
“You see, I know there’s nothing I can’t step over it,” he explained, “cause I crawled so fucking low I fell out of the basement—and that’s hard to do.”
Times were hard but he got through it. He only had one regret about his childhood, he told Guralnick: “I never did call anybody Mama, I never called anybody Daddy. I called my daddy Bub and my mother Red, that was what they was to all of us seven kids. I don’t know why. I’ve wondered about that a lot. Some damn things you just can’t explain.”
When he was a small child, he made his first guitar out of a bucket and a piece of wire. He wrote proto-songs even as a kid, which he described to Guralnik in psychedelic detail as not quite poems, more like daydreams: “I mean, I used to wish I was a bug sometimes. Have you ever wondered when you saw a bug crawling across the floor just where that bug was going, why he was going there, did he ever come back?”
He knew a few church hymns and Bob Wills songs on the radio, but he needed something new. “I wrote songs because I didn’t know nothing else to sing, really,” he said.
Frenchy moved around living with various family members and helping his uncles out with bootlegging operations. He liked it. “A man was accepted as a man by what he was, what he did, not by what the law said he was supposed to be,” he said.
He seemed more than a little wistful talking about it to Guralnick, around 1978. “You know, I may go back to it yet,” he said. “One damn thing about it, I ain’t never found anything that was more exciting than making corn whiskey.”
But in 1950, when the feds started cracking down, he decided there was no good future in corn whiskey and moved to California, settling in the Bay Area, where he worked various blue collar jobs, eventually operating a crane in a shipyard. He got married and started a family.
His wife and friends weren’t sure what to make of his fixation on country— “shitkicking music” they called it. It was mostly a hobby at that point. He thought up songs and recorded them on a tape recorder in his garage.
But he had talent, and then some. He had a rangy Hard Country voice that evoked Merle Haggard—must be something in the journey from Oklahoma to the West Coast. On the liner notes to a posthumous compilation album, the music journalist John Morthland described his singing as a “grainy, stray-cat voice.” His phrasing was rich and there was always something easy and inviting about his delivery.
Frenchy had always wanted to sing on the Grand Ole Opry. The itch never left him, and he played in the honky-tonks in the Bay Area when he could.
At some point, he dropped Frenchy. He went by Stoney.
In 1968, working as a forklift operator, Stoney got trapped inside of a sealed tank and got carbon monoxide poisoning that left him extremely debilitated. Bloodstream levels of 20 percent are considered severe; according to Edwards, he was at 80 percent. Unable to continue working, he was at times in a coma-like state. For around two years, he suffered from severe cognitive confusion. Doctors told him he would die.
He refused to accept disability payments; according to Guralnik’s account, he would have wound up in a mental institution during this period if not for his wife. Even after he recovered, he was not cleared to return to work. Broke and without good options, he spent more time focused on music. With some luck, it was only around six months after his recovery that he got a deal with Capitol Records. His first single at Capitol, the saccharine “A Two Dollar Toy,” was a true story of him considering leaving his family once he could no longer provide for them.
Timing no doubt helped Edwards: Charlie Pride was blowing up and record labels were looking for other Black country singers. This always made for a bit of an awkward situation in his career: He was the second biggest Black country star of the 70s. But Pride was in another stratosphere, one of the best-selling country artists ever. And Stoney’s music and persona were very different than Pride’s. Pride was a crooner enveloped in the smooth Nashville Sound; Stoney was more downhome and rugged, and unlike Pride was a songwriter, with a knack for simple, detail-rich, salt-of-the-earth stories. But Stoney never quite escaped being that other guy, the parenthetical in the chapter on Pride.
Like Linda Martell’s 1970 Color Me Country, his 1971 debut album’s title was on the nose in reckoning the situation of a Black singer in this genre. Stoney Edwards, the cover announced, with a picture of him in a black cowboy hat: A Country Singer. In case you were wondering. (At this point, record companies were apparently leaning in to selling the concept of a Black country singer; by contrast, it’s hard to know exactly what’s true, but Charley Pride famously was heard by country audiences before any publicity photo was distributed.)
The album title also served as a declaration of style: Unlike Martell’s soul-oriented spin on country, Edwards was a hardcore traditionalist (skeptical of crossover music, he told an interviewer in 1979, “You know, a person can get run over in the middle of the road”).
Our featured song this week, “Poor Folks Stick Together,” was the opening track and made it to #61 on the country charts. Edwards, a prolific songwriter, didn’t write this one, but it is firmly in his wheelhouse. There’s a certain irony here, but Edwards had a gift for putting the spirit into anthems to provincial tribalism: “Them’s my kind of people.”He is so natural and charming in this good-ole-boy mode. His us-against-them solidarity, perfectly rendered, is heartbreaking if you think about it too long.
“My songs are true,” Stoney told Guralnick. “Every fucking song I write comes from my own experience.”
Edwards abided the Nashville bigwigs with some trepidation: “All these people grinning at each other like they’re loving each other, and hating each other’s fucking guts all the time. There’s enough hate in the world. I don’t hate nobody.”
Edwards was much, much a nicer person than Hank Williams and did not share Hank’s death wish, but there’s something of Hank in his story, in his refusal to change. He was a low self monitor, as the psychologists would put it. He was country. That’s just how it was.
Hank put his cowboy boots up on executives’ desks and played up the hick routine, glaring with resentment. Stoney just turned up the charm, and was well-liked in the industry. Maybe that was his personality or maybe that was by necessity. Probably a little bit of both. Stoney was reportedly once refused entry to a party at Capitol headquarters in Los Angeles. They thought he didn’t look right, I guess. A lot of things happened to Hank but nothing like that.
Edwards had subtle poetic instincts in his songwriting. The rough-edged simplicity—that’s Hank’s shadow, through and through. The mosquitoes are biting and the fish aren’t, mama is strong when times get rough, and the bottle is a comfort. “I’ve never seen a man work quite as hard or come home half as tired” (the line rhymes easily with Stoney’s unreconstructed Okie drawl). “Bartender your music is loud and wrong, and your drinks are watered down.” “Last night I woke up like I done many times before—but this time I had evil on my mind.” “In Honky-Tonk Heaven, the drinks are free.” “Chasing grasshoppers with my grandma’s best broom.” And so on.
Stoney’s basic theme as a writer was endurance and grit. The pitter patter of everyday conversation is imaginative and at times even surreal in his songs, but always grounded in home and rural folk wisdom.
“An Old Mule’s Hip” fantasizes about farm life as a movie with the mule’s rear end as the camera before admitting, “I’ve spent darn near all my life looking at an ol’ mule’s hip.”The lovely “Pickin’ Wildflowers,” opens with Stoney wishing he was back in Oklahoma, “running through the fields with my dog.” The working class anthems and odes to rural whimsy are playful enough to avoid being soapy.
“Vanilla, boys,” Hank would remind his bandmates. He didn’t mean white. He meant simple—hillbilly music, the blues. Country music then and now attracts musical aficionados and technicians. Hank defined an ethos that was in a kind of conflict with all that professional showmanship—music for the folks. “You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly,” he said (though Hank himself, unlike Stoney, never did farmwork or lasted very long at any sort of manual labor).
Stoney Edwards was in that tradition. His songs could veer toward the hokey, and the quality of others’ songs he sang varied. But his expressive voice was able to deliver even rote material with intimacy and vivid texture. His bio aside, he had that irreducible quality: He sang like he had smelt a lot of mule manure.
At times, alas, the production behind his music probably wasn’t quite vanilla enough. I can only go off the catalog that exists but Guralnick argued that the full potential of Stoney’s artistry remained untapped. “Nothing that he has done to date…even hints at what Stoney Edwards is capable of,” he wrote.
Few of the songs that Stoney had written were recorded, according to Guralnick. “It seems to me his writing can be compared favorably to that of two heroes of his, Merle Haggard and Lefty Frizzell,” Guralnick argued. I can’t quite go that far, but I do get hints of this throughout his catalog: “What is most impressive about it is the weight of his compositions, the wealth of detail, the selectivity of his art.”
Guralnick also argues, and here I wholeheartedly agree, that the backing and production behind Stoney’s work at Capitol was spotty and often off the mark, with gratuitous choirs and so on. None of his producers, Guralnick writes, “has known precisely how to serve him or how to bring out the eloquent simplicity of his style.” Perhaps his go-along, get-along attitude tripped him up, Guralnick speculates: “A policy of accommodation has made Stoney Edwards almost universally well-liked, but it has not necessarily helped him to realize his vision.” But it seems just as likely to me that in the country music industry in the 1970s, someone who looked like Stoney had no choice.
Stoney had a whole lot of songs about hunting and fishing, farming and truck driving, and so on. But just as important to his ethos of being country was country music itself. One of his biggest hits was “Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul,” written by Dallas Frazier and A.L. Owens, which hit #39 on the country charts. The song is a nostalgia trip on the power of songs we grow up with and their highly personal associations, and a reflection on the intimate relationship we feel with those singers. It was also something of a statement piece for Stoney. He may have been an accidental trailblazer, but he always placed himself firmly in the legacy and traditions of country music, a genre that worships its patriarchs and matriarchs.
When the song came out in 1973, Stoney ran into Lefty Frizzell at a bar in Nashville, according to an interview Stoney gave in 1992. Lefty was sitting at a table by himself, listening to “Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul” play on the jukebox. Lefty was forty-five years old and would die two years later; at that point, he was many years removed from dominating the country charts. Stoney walked over to say hello.
“Lefty was sitting there crying and he was listening to that song,” Stoney recounted to the Journal of Country Music. “He said, ‘Boy, I tell you, that song just tears me up. That song’s a tribute to me. I didn’t think anybody cared nothing about me anymore.’
“And then, out of the clear blue, Lefty says, ‘And wouldn’t you know it? It had to be by a n*****.’ Well, then he shook my hand, but I don’t think he ever did know who he was talking to.’”
Stoney Edwards had no anxiety of influence. Pulled out of school early, Edwards could not read or write. As he began composing songs, he would try to keep a few memorized in his head or record them on a tape recorder, since he had no means to write them down (a bunch of early songs were lost when his daughter accidentally destroyed a tape while he was incapacitated after the workplace accident). He brought a tape recorder on the road, too, hustling to capture songs as they came to him. None of it was written down on paper.
“I’m glad I can’t read,” Edwards told Guralnick.
“It scares the shit out of me sometimes how close I came to being an educated man,” he said. “What I’m saying is, when I think about how many things that’s written about that’s copied—well, I can’t copy anybody else. What I write about comes from a natural feeling inside myself. What I write has to be true.”
Stoney also happened to have one the greatest looks of any 1970s honky-tonk singer. During his run at Capitol, each album cover was thankfully centered on a portrait of his own country cool. What an absolute slayer, perfect every time, no notes:
With one very notable exception, Stoney didn’t typically sing directly about race, but as I mentioned, his identity inevitably created an ironic edge to a number of the songs he chose to sing. He was a country boy who could survive, you might say; he took a lot of pride in what he was, etc. The pepper in these sentiments has always been cross racial, but their expression in country music came to be associated with white rednecks and rebel flags. Thus, a listener can decide pride is about rural life, working class experience, sense of place, and so on—or a listener can decide it’s about preserving an old power status quo against meddling outsiders. Merle Haggard didn’t care that not everyone got the joke in “Okie from Muskogee”; he just wanted to sell records and he was content to play along.
Stoney seemed to have a genuine love for the sort of song that lists off the joys of redneck lifestyle (and needles yankees, city dwellers, and other untrustworthy sorts). There are any number of psychological or political readings we could try to do here about why that was, but let’s just say it’s complicated, and it’s simple. He just dug being country, and he was good at it.
You can imagine him scoring a modern hit with the irresistible “You Can’t Call Yourself Country”: “If you never been awakened by a rooster crow / Or did a lot of fishing with a willow pole / Or walked around barefooted with a big so’ toe / Then you can’t call yourself country.” He keeps going like this, the details themselves and the accent on every syllable a docket of pride and person.
There’s a lot you could say sociologically about this sort of song. Again, there’s the chip-on-the-shoulder solidarity, that spirit of joy with low-humming resentment, the ferocious sense of loyalty and home. It is a reactionary crouch, yes, but there is a kind of kinship in spirit here that seems pretty common for singalong songs of all kinds. And there is something more complex at the root of it—the way that displacement can lead us to give new reverence to familiar comforts: “If you’ve left the country and moved away / And never thought about going back some day / Well my friend all I can say / Is you can’t call yourself country.”
If you want to tell a pocket history of American songwriting in the twentieth century that’s a good place to start: the Dust Bowl, the Great Migration, urbanization and industrialization, the mechanization of farm labor. Off the boat or off the farm and into the factories. Letting go and hanging on. Singing the old tunes, coming up with brand new ways of song. The country charts now always have a place for this sort of song, even if the prime audience is maybe uploading videos of four wheeler exploits in the exurbs for likes on social media. The anxiety of displacement is a good metaphor, anyway, for tragedy and for farce.
I don’t know whether to take it as a wink or a grimace, but when you hear Stoney Edwards sing a song like “You Can’t Call Yourself Country,” there is just no way to avoid thinking about the complexities of identity. Stoney was in character as himself in these songs, and no one sold it better. A country singer, his first album announced, and who was more country than Stoney Edwards? Who had more of a claim to call himself country? But when the Pointer Sisters played the Opry in 1974, there were the signs outside: “Keep country, country.” Stoney was Hard Country in a way the Sisters never could be, but the litmus test here had nothing to do with musical style or chasing a rabbit out of a hollow log.
Music seems to have been something of a respite, but Stoney was candid about how unmoored he felt:
I was never really accepted by anyone until I started singing country music. I mean, being the color that I am, having the hair and the eyes that I do, I didn’t really know where I belonged, I was never really accepted by any race. Sometimes I wished I was black as a skillet or white as a damned sheet, but the way I am it’s always been a motherfucker. Sometimes I’d go in an all-white place and then just leave. I mean, nobody would say anything, but that’s just the way I would feel about it. Other times I’d be with all black and I’d want to hide. To the Indians I was a kind of half-breed. A lot of it could have been in my mind, but I mean it was a goddamn problem!
Stoney was a clever dude, and I suspect he knew what he was doing leaning in to these questions. One of his biggest hits was “Mississippi You’re On My Mind,” which went to #20 on the country charts. It’s a beautiful rendition of Jesse Winchester’s song, with a kind of aching melodrama in the vocal performance that could make Randy Newman swoon. Winchester was a Southern hippie raised in north Mississippi and Memphis, who fled for Canada to avoid the draft for Vietnam. The song’s tender details are standard Stoney stuff about country living. There’s nothing political about it. Still. You can imagine an Ole Miss frat singing along, maybe to the Jerry Jeff Walker version, at halftime of the homecoming game in nineteen-seventy-something. Displacement and longing for home mean different things to different people. And there’s Stoney, in nineteen-seventy-something: Mississippi, you’re on my mind.
Or cue up the catchy “Dixie Boy”: “I love that Southern style of living / Where a man could stand and be a man / But then I felt the call of a Yankee dollar…But now I see the light / And I’m leaving here tonight / I’m gonna be a Dixie boy again.” He hates the city, the smog and the dirty factories: “Well that ain’t living, it is just existing / An asphalt jungle without any trees.” And then the chorus for our Dixie boy: “I’m gonna taste that country freedom in that Southern wind.” On Youtube, the first upload of the song I found goes along with a still shot of a Confederate flag.
Just grist for Stoney’s twisted artistry, let’s say. The same way he brought the heat to “Yankee Lady,” a steamy number about an older Vermont sugar mama who’s hot for studly Stoney. Rough and resilient, effortlessly cool in his black cowboy hat, you could say that Stoney was just about the weirdest redneck renegade that ever was. He waded into the mess of history and came out singing. Dixie boy, blackbird, bootlegger man. His country soul: a brand of defiance uniquely his own.
“Blackbird (Hold Your Head Up High)” made the subtext into text and was the rare song explicit about having a Black narrator. Very explicit: The narrator’s father dreams of a family string band on the road: “Just a couple of country n*****s …From Georgia on up to Bangor, Maine.” It was banned on a number of radio stations but still charted at #41 and got a good writeup in Billboard. The song’s a little maudlin but it works on its terms. Stoney lets it rip on the chorus, his anthem of sorts: “Hold your head high blackbird, sing a pretty song / Don’t let no scarecrows chase you down / You were born black and hungry / But you was taught to understand / The good in every man, son / So sing about it when you can, son / Sing it pretty blackbird.”
Billboard hailed it as “the anthem of Southern blacks and the Dixie sons and daughters of all colors who grew up the country way. Pride is universal, and the message will be understood by those who buy, and love, country music and the men who make it great like Stoney Edwards.” Another Billboard critic called it “the anthem of all poor blacks and whites.”
It’s true about pride, or ought to be. Poor folks stick together til the end, or they ought to. But that’s not how it went, in the country of country. Perhaps this was Stoney’s sneaky rebellion. If you can’t sing along with Stoney Edwards, then you can’t call yourself country.
Notes and Marginalia:
If you dig Stoney, there’s plenty to listen to. In addition to “Poor Folks Stick Together” and many of the songs mentioned above—“An Old Mule’s Hip,” “Pickin’ Wildflowers,” “Mississippi You’re On My Mind,” “Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul,” “You Can’t Call Yourself Country,” and “Blackbird”—I can recommend “She’s My Rock,” his other song that made it to #20 on the country charts, in addition to “Mississippi.” Classic honky-tonk number that’s perfect for Stoney’s vocals, penned by Sharon Dobbins. Stoney had it first but country fans might recognize it from other versions: A few years later, Brenda Lee flipped the genders and peaked at #8; George Jones did a rendition that went to #2 in 1984.
And more… In boozy honky-tonk mode: “Please Bring a Bottle,” “The Cute Little Waitress,” “Something New and Different,” “You Stayed Long Enough (To Make Me Love You),” “Tell Me That You Love Me,” “You’ll Remember Me,” “Don’t Be Angry,” “She’s Helping Me Get Over You,” “Honky Tonk Heaven,” “We Sure Danced Us Some Good ’Uns”; in cinematic storytelling mode: “Mama’s Love,” “All She Made of Me,” “Daddy His Best,” “Mama’s Old Quilt,” “Good to Have You Home”; detail-rich odes to rural living: “The Fishin’ Song”; working-class anthems: “Odd-Job Dollar-Bill Man,” “Head Bootlegger Man.” There’s a solid cover of Wynn Stewart’s “I Bought the Shoes That Just Walked Out on Me” and an ill-advised cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On a Wire.” Based on Guralnick’s take, it’s hard not to pine for what else might have been, but even with what we got, Stoney Edwards ranks as one of the most underrated country vocalists of the 1970s. Check him out.
“I don’t have to be the greatest star,” he told Guralnick. “The best can always be replaced, you know, but you never replace the good ones. I want to be remembered for a hundred years as a good man and as a good country singer. You see, I’ve had my shit together for a long time, man, it’s just that up until now it’s been too heavy to pick up.”
I wish we could all have a three-minute animated depiction of our lives narrated by Billy Ray Cyrus. We can’t all be so lucky, but I am glad there’s one for Stoney.
Unless otherwise specified, the direct quotes from Stoney Edwards are from a chapter on Edwards in Peter Guralnik’s book Lost Highway. It’s the best single source on Edwards and one of the finest features on a country singer you can find anywhere. The quotes are majestic. Edwards was an all-time talker. I’m leaning more heavily on that chapter than I normally would but I just can’t resist sharing these gems.
The details in Stoney’s songs are cultural (“yonder comes a diesel”), but his theme of pride is often centered around class: “Their half of the country has the gold...Poor folks stick together...All for one and one for all again / And if you jump on one you fight ’em all.”
The surreal goof has teeth. As with many of Stoney’s songs, there is both a ferocious expression of class solidarity and a more subtle invocation of race. “Well the only prize that I ever got / Was a big old pat on the back / And when it came a pickin’ time / I got a brand new cotton sack / Well I wish I had a dollar for the dust I swallowed on every inch of ground I plowed / I’d have Rockefeller and Howard Hughes / a shinin’ my shoes right now.”
The archives can be cringeworthy: this critic, writing in July 1976, referred to country music by Black performers as “Sepia country.”