Ernest "Pop" Stoneman was one of the first, and most popular, early country artists. He was born in Carroll Country, Virginia and raised by his father and three cousins, who taught him traditional Blue Ridge Mountain songs. He married as a young man and, when not working various odd jobs, played music for friends and neighbors. After hearing a Henry Whitter record and swearing he could do better, in 1924 he set off to New York to get a recording contract and prove it. His first single, "The Sinking of the Titanic," came out on the Okeh label later that year and became one of the biggest hits of the 1920s. At first he was accompanied only by his autoharp (his best-known instrument) and harmonica, but later switched to guitar; Stoneman was also adept at playing the Jew's harp and the clawhammer banjo. In 1926, he surrounded himself with a full string band, mostly composed of relatives and neighbors. His career reached its peak in 1927, when he became the top country artist at Victor and led the Bristol sessions, which helped the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers gain renown. Stoneman continued to record through 1929, setting down over 200 songs.
When the Great Depression hit in the early '30s, Stoneman lost everything and moved his wife and nine children to Washington, D.C. They remained there in desperate poverty while Stoneman worked odd jobs and tried to re-establish his career, finally finding work at a munitions plant. At the end of the 1940s, he and his talented clan began performing as the Stoneman Family. By 1956, he had earned the moniker "Pop" and appeared on the NBC television game show The Big Surprise, where he won $10,000. Later, his children's band, the Blue Grass Champs, became the Stonemans, which Pop himself joined after retiring from the plant in the late '50s. He continued appearing with them and singing lead vocals through the early '60s. In 1965, the Stonemans signed with MGM in Nashville and hosted a syndicated TV show. In 1967, Stoneman's health began to deteriorate; he continued recording and performing through the spring of 1968, until his death in June. ~ Sandra Brennan