Stoney Edwards – Stuck Betwixt Pride and Hootie
It’s hard to escape Hootie. In the mid-90s, Darius Rucker was the frontman for Hootie & The Blowfish, selling boatloads of banal pop-tarts to frat boys/girls scared of rap music. Being 75% white and writing Hallmark reject lyrics like “I Only Want to Be With You,” the band was a bit less challenging than say Living Colour. Darius has managed to make those now middle-aged white people, driving SUVs with two kids in the back, feel comfortable again with his “country” music. His completely unnecessary cover of “Wagon Wheel” is his sixth Nashville based #1. He’s the first African-American to reach the Top Ten on the country charts since Charley Pride’s 1985 “Shouldn’t It Be Easier Than This.”
Pride, a former minor league baseball player who now has an ownership stake in the Texas Rangers, broke the color barrier in 1966 with his first Top Ten hit, “Just Between You and Me,” which is unfortunately not the April Wine song. A legitimate country music superstar, Pride was an excellent singer who knew his boundaries. As Robert Christgau noted, “He was never thematically honky-tonk – no drinking songs, God knows no catting songs.” After Pride established a track record on RCA, Capital signed the Oklahoma based African-American country singer Frenchy “Stoney” Edwards, who was already on the wrong side of forty. His gene pool was actually a mixture of African, Irish, and Native American. Being a personal melting pot wasn’t easy. Edwards told Peter Guralnick, who wrote about Stoney in his indispensable book Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians, “I was never really accepted by any race. Sometimes I wished I was black as a skillet or white as a damned sheet.” His first single, “A Two Dollar Toy” was released in 1970 with the backing of young swing band named Asleep at the Wheel. The syrupy tale of how a cheap toy made him a million dollar daddy did not result in fame and future.
His 1972 release “She’s My Rock,” a staunch defense of a reformed woman, hit #20 on the charts, a pinnacle he reached twice. Brenda Lee and George Jones both had bigger hits with the same number. (Deciding it was too early for a lesbian love song in country music, Brenda’s version was “He’s My Rock”). In a genre littered with tributes to its real and manufactured heroes, 1973’s “Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul” is one of the best, but it only reached #39 on the charts. While Hank and Lefty may have been inspirational, his “grainy, stray-cat voice rich in vibrato and a proud Texas-Oklahoma twang” (a quote from John Morthland) sounded much more like Merle. Stoney’s muscular version of Jesse Winchester’s “Mississippi You’re on My Mind” was his last Top 40 hit, peaking at #20 in 1975.
1975 also saw the release of the unforgettable “Blackbird (Hold Your Head High),” which was either a desperate commercial move or a case of being too honest for the marketplace. A story of racial pride, penned by Chip Taylor, it’s chorus began, “Just a couple of country ni**ers, stealing the rodeo.” The vibe was a bit different than “Convoy” or “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” The album of the same name was his last for Capital. He would later record for independent labels and suffer through several health issues before passing away in 1997.
Edwards wasn’t the only African-American to sneak into the country music charts in the 1970s, O.B. McClinton scraped into the Top 40 twice in the early ‘70s and Big Al Downing started a string of minor hits in 1978, but he did receive the most extended push from a major label. I wouldn’t argue for his consistency or the depth of his catalogue, but check out the 1973 b-side “She’s Helping Me Get Over You.” Like George Jones, Stoney knew in his bones that heartache could be both enduring and universal. That’s country.