Published February 29, 2024

The “First Lady of the Banjo” Roni Stoneman passed away on Thursday, February 22, and the country and bluegrass music world has offered up thoughtful tributes and memories in honor of this unforgettable trailblazer.

“Ms. Stoneman made her mark in 1957 with a driving instrumental version of ‘Lonesome Road Blues,’ which made her the first woman to play modern bluegrass banjo on a phonograph record,” wrote Bill Friskics-Warren for The New York Times.

Roni, the youngest child of 23, grew up in poverty in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Her father, Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman, was born in Carroll County and was part of the “big bang” of country music, the 1927 Bristol Sessions. By the 1960s, her family were living in Washington, DC, where the Stonemans family band gained a following in the 1960s club scene (the title “These Badass Bluegrass Sisters Ruled DC’s Honky-Tonk Bars” in the Washingtonian says it all).

In 2005, Jon Lohman, former state folklorist, recorded Roni at the Whitetop Mountain Ramp Festival. Wayne Henderson introduces her and backs her up on guitar, while Thornton Spencer plays fiddle. Roni has both of them—and the crowd—laughing at her stories of growing up “working class.”

“Roni was one of those people that you’d never hear anyone say, ‘Yeah, I think I met her.’ She was someone you could never forget. I can’t recall a single time I ran into her where she didn’t seem to have a congregation of people around her, all laughing and smiling and taking such joy in her presence. 

She was so kind, sweet, and charming but also a total badass. She played banjo with the reckless abandon of a runaway train and simply owned every stage she ever graced. Her passing truly marks the end of an era, as she was the youngest of 23 children born to the legendary Pops Stoneman, a true pioneer of country music and the driving motivation behind Ralph Peer heading down to Bristol in 1927 to record them and other groups he suggested, such as the Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers — recordings that would forever alter the course of American music. 

Roni belonged to the world, both as a key member of the beloved family group the Stonemans and of course gaining national fame starring in the wildly popular show “Hee Haw” and numerous other film appearances.  But as the former Virginia state folklorist, I have always felt so proud of her family’s Virginia connections, and we claim the amazing and wild Stoneman Family as our own. She was a light in this world and she will be deeply missed.”

—Jon Lohman

Roni Stoneman performs at the 2005 Whitetop Mountain Ramp Festival, supported by Wayne Henderson and Thornton Spencer
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