‘First Lady of Banjo’ Roni Stoneman Dies at 85

WENN Rights Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo
WENN Rights Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

The woman known as the ‘First Lady of the Banjo’ has died at age 85.

Roni Stoneman, known for her gap-toothed grin and eager persona, was the 22nd of 23 children born into a country music family led by patriarch and bluegrass legend Ernest “Pop” Stoneman. She got her start performing in the Stoneman Family band—of which she was the last surviving member.

The family band rose to prominence after winning a music competition called “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” in 1956, according to Billboard. The family would later parlay their notoriety into a syndicated 1960s television show called Those Stonemans.

But Roni Stoneman’s individual prowess at the banjo helped her chart a solo career in television in the 1970s, when she joined the country music variety show Hee Haw. She played Ida Lee Nagger on the show for 18 years, where she was known for her part on the song “Pfft You Were Gone” with Buck Owens and Buddy Allan.

“She was an integral part of a bedrock country music family, and for eighteen years on Hee Haw, she stole scenes as a skillful banjo player and as a comical, gap-toothed country character,” Kyle Young, the CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said in a statement on X.

“For Roni Stoneman, country music was a birthright and her life’s work.”

Indeed, the devoted country musician was performing well into her 80s, sharing the stage with her sister as recently as 2020.

In a 2007 autobiography called Pressing On: The Roni Stoneman Story, she described herself as “the youngest daughter of the pioneering country music family, and a girl who, in spite of poverty and abusive husbands, eventually became ‘The First Lady of Banjo,’ a fixture on the Nashville scene, and, as Hee Haw’s Ironing Board Lady, a comedienne beloved by millions of Americans nationwide.”

Her cause of death was not disclosed.

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