Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.
When it comes to this particular volume of ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ we’re going to have to start from the ground up.
The year was 1955, and at the Methodist Church in Lynhurst, Virginia, Harold Reid joined Lew DeWitt, Phil Balsley, and Joe McDorman on stage, marking the debut of a group that would eventually become known as the Statler Brothers. The four high school friends were called the Four Star Quartet during these times, however, incorporating gospel favorites into their sets and building themselves into one of the area’s best local groups.
But let’s be honest – not a lot of bands have broken out from singing gospel music in their tiny hometown. By 1960, the group dissolved, though Reid would later reunite everyone to sing again just one year later under a new name, the Kingsmen. Harold’s brother, Don, however, would replace McDorman, who pursued other interests.
Financial pressures lingered, however, so while the Kingsmen were a straight-laced gospel quartet on Sundays, during the week they performed a variety of country, pop and rock music at various banquets and conventions. They became more interested in playing secular music as their popularity grew. For their rock numbers, they could just emulate the sounds of various doo-wop groups of the time. Ironically, it was country music which presented their biggest hurdle.
Remember, at this point in country music history, there were no groups for the Statler Brothers to look to for inspiration. Except for a few harmonizing family acts, country music was a genre mostly reliant on lead vocals, with groups only really being used for chorus and background accompaniment. The genre has close ties to church music and hymns, and considering fans fit the lifestyle role fairly well, it would seem natural for a harmony-type sound to evolve during country music’s earliest stages, but alas.
So, with no inspiration to draw upon, the Kingsmen did what any group at that point would do – improvise!
That, as you might have guessed, wasn’t a great game plan. Despite the group drawing regional interest from Virginia in the early 60s, record companies ignored them in favor of solo acts. Country & western had already divorced by this point, but country and gospel never even got their first date.
Thankfully, there was another country artist who aspired to record gospel music as well, and that artist is none other than Mr. Johnny Cash. Whether it be by fate or luck, Cash saw the group perform to a small-town crowd in 1963, and was impressed not only with the sound, but with the showmanship as well. By this point, Cash had already brought the Carter Family on tour with him along with his old Sun Records colleague Carl Perkins, but he wanted someone who could bring a mass appeal to small-town America. As it turns out, he found multiple someones to fit that role. Record labels had no interest in the Kingsmen, but crowds of thousands of people sure did.
At this point, the Kingsmen were grounded and ready to take the music world by storm, but in reality, they already had. Well, not them exactly, but another group of Kingsmen known as a rock ‘n’ roll band. Once the Kingsmen we’re referring to exited Virginia and played for new audiences, they likely disappointed people who expected to hear “Louie, Louie” in concert. In order to seperate themselves from those Kingsmen, the group picked a name from, I kid you not, a box of tissues, thus christening the Statler Brothers.
Even after all that, however, record labels still wouldn’t throw the Statler Brothers a bone. It took some persuasion from Cash to wrangle the group a deal with Columbia Records, Cash’s own record label home at the time. But how do you market something brand new? And keep in mind, this was way before the Internet.
Sonically, the brothers fit a weird mold of gospel, folk and country without fitting squarely into any category, and in reality, only two of the members were actual brothers. With little promotion behind their first releases for the record label, they were dead on arrival. The group would have to attain that first true hit themselves.
And if you want the inspiration for where to find that hit, you don’t turn to some suit-wearing business executive who couldn’t play you a D chord, you turn to the fans, a musician’s true boss at the end of the day. Remember, the Statler Brothers had the support of Cash of all people, an artist who managed to convert folk and rock fans onto his brand of country music. DeWitt wondered just what would happen if he tried to write a song that bridged those two worlds, and just like that, the light bulb went off in his head.
Like any true musician, DeWitt conceived the song while on the road, more specifically in a hotel room. As a testament to what everyone does when they’re bored, he started to wonder how long it would take to count the flowers on the wallpaper of his room. Pretty soon, the song incorporated other elements of what musicians do to pass the time on the road – smoking cigarettes, playing Solitaire, watching television – whatever would help kill the monotony. Perhaps taking inspiration from Cash, too, the song employed a chugging bass rhythm that resembled something eerily similar to what he’d record. The brothers would later help DeWitt polish the finishing touches and give birth to “Flowers On The Wall.”
Oddly enough, this song actually garnered attention from label executives who thought the song could become a huge player in both the country music and pop market. So they marketed the group as a folk group and went with it, hoping to reintroduce the group and erase the memories of those first few singles.
The song was sent out to radio stations in August, 1965, yet it still faced initial resentment from the rock charts. Still, the group at least attained their first country hit, holding the No. 2 position for four straight weeks before working their way back down. With the attention it received from country, folk fans wanted rock stations to play the song as well, eventually helping it to land on the Billboard Hot 100 in December where it would go on to peak at No. 4. In spring 1966, the Statler Brothers had won a Grammy award for “Flowers On The Wall.”
Strangely enough, the group never recaptured that same spark again on Columbia Records. They would eventually hit their stride in 1969 after Jerry Kennedy, head of Mercury Record’s country division, signed them. They traded in a huge hit for more grounded consistency, inspiring several other quartet acts to consider trying out that style in country music too. The only group that had really stuck around was the Oak Ridge Boys in 1976, though in 1980, a new group would come to launch country music into brand new territory in their own right, that group being Alabama. More than just groups, however, they inspired solo acts as well. Eric Heatherly’s debut single in 2000 was a cover of “Flowers On The Wall,” ironically his biggest hit for him as well. It was the Statler Brothers, however, that got that ball rolling. Join me next time on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ where we’ll discuss Jeannie C. Riley and the “Harper Valley P.T.A.”
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
– This information was heavily reliant on biographies of the Statler Brothers taken from both The Encyclopedia of Country & Western Music by Rick Marschall and the Encyclopedia of Country Music by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, with the group’s biography written by Colin Escott.
– Further information was taken from this article, courtesy of our friends from Country Universe
– Other helpful information was taken from Bill C. Malone’s Country Music U.S.A., specifically the chapter Country Music, 1972-1984.